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The Most Powerful Person in the Criminal Justice System

County attorneys are powerful elected officials. So why don’t more people know about them?

The Role of
County Attorneys

County attorneys are among the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. County attorneys, often referred to as district attorneys in other states, decide who gets criminal charges filed against them, the severity of those charges, or if charges get filed at all.

They play a huge role in mass incarceration, unequal bail practices, and how to hold police accountable for any discriminatory behavior.

They are elected officials.

There are 87 counties in Minnesota and county attorneys are up for re-election every four years. But more often than not, these races go uncontested.

In Minnesota, county attorneys are responsible for prosecuting all felony convictions. County attorneys may also prosecute certain gross misdemeanors, depending on the county. They can also choose to send individuals to diversion programs, or recommend a lesser charge and refer to the city attorney’s office.

County attorneys often run on “tough-on-crime” platforms—but they can also be agents for change. They can reduce incarceration rates, address racial disparities in prosecution, and push for bail reform and other criminal justice reforms. But community members need to demand reform.

The best way to demand reform? Vote!

Below are examples of decisions your county attorney faces every day.

Scenario 1

A veteran who served time in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been diagnosed with PTSD has been struggling with alcohol abuse. He has had a few instances on his record of public intoxication and driving while intoxicated. He is arrested for a DWI. Do you:

Veteran Graphic

Scenario 1

Outcome: Upon release from prison, he would have a felony on his record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. His underlying PTSD and drug use would not only have gone untreated, but would have been exacerbated due to the stress of prison. His disconnection from community would make re-entry difficult. He would struggle with homelessness, PTSD, and alcoholism, increasing his likelihood for recidivism.

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Veteran Graphic

Scenario 1

Outcome: The veteran would participate in a 12-18 month program where he would receive one-on-one judicial supervision, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment. He would receive a peer mentor to help guide him through the veteran’s court process, increasing the likelihood for successful treatment. Upon successful treatment, either his case could be dismissed or his charges reduced. He would be connected to employment and skills training assistance and temporary housing.

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Veteran Graphic

Scenario 2

A 16-year-old who has been in and out of foster homes and struggling in school was arrested for robbing a gas station. He has no prior record. Do you:

Juvenile Graphic

Scenario 2

Outcome: This teenager would be 36-years-old when he is released from prison. He would not have finished high school and would have a felony on his record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. These difficulties impact the likelihood for recidivism.

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Juvenile Graphic

Scenario 2

Outcome: This teenager would participate in a short-term program with different classes and community service programs. He would have a case manager to connect him with resources. When he successfully completes the diversion program, he will have more connection to the community and opportunities that uplift him out of poverty.

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Juvenile Graphic

Scenario 3

A 30-year-old who has struggled off-and-on with an opioid addiction, and has several related misdemeanor drug offenses convictions on her record, recently relapsed following a job loss and was arrested for possession of a large amount of opioids. Do you:

Substance Use Graphic

Scenario 3

Outcome: When this woman is released from prison, she will be 60-years-old. She will be out of the workforce for over 30 years and have a felony record—making it difficult for her to find work and integrate back in her community. She will not be connected to community resources to help her with her opioid addiction once released.

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Substance Use Graphic

Scenario 3

Outcome: This woman would go into a 1-2 year program that includes long-term treatment, intensive monitoring from the court, and community supervision. In addition to receiving support for her opioid addition, she would be connected with resources and community, both important factors in being able to follow through with her treatment. Her case manager can help her get connected to a vocational training program and help with job placement.

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Substance Use Graphic

Scenario 4

A 22-year-old had a mental health crisis at a public grocery store. Before mental health mobile crisis units were able to de-escalate his conduct, he threw several canned goods that resulted in damage to the cans and minor injury to a bystander's toe. Do you:

Mental Health Graphic

Scenario 4

Outcome: When this man is released from prison, he would be 27-years-old. He would have a felony on his record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. His underlying mental illness would not only have gone untreated, but would have been exacerbated due to the stress of prison. His disconnection from community would make re-entry difficult. He would struggle with homelessness and mental illness, increasing his likelihood for recidivism.

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Mental Health Graphic

Scenario 4

Outcome: The city attorney would refer to mental health treatment program. He would agree to a treatment plan and be under court supervision until completion, as well as work with a probation officer. On successful completion of the program, his charges would be dismissed. If he violated the terms of his treatment program, he could be charged with a misdemeanor but would not have a felony record.

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Mental Health Graphic

Scenario 5

A 19-year-old was caught spray painting a government building. It is not her first offense. When caught, she was brutally assaulted by a police officer who has had multiple complaints for use of force. The bodycam video shows the officer assaulting the teenager after she was in custody, handcuffed and complying with orders. Do you:

Police Accountability

Scenario 5

Outcome: The young woman would be 24-years-old when she is released from prison. She would have a felony on her record—making it difficult to obtain a job and receive public assistance. The officer responsible would not face any charges and any discipline would be left to the discretion of the police department.

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Police Accountability

Scenario 5

Outcome: The young woman would participate in a short-term program and participate in a restorative justice program in which she amends her actions, as well as does community service under the supervision of a case manager. The officer who assaulted her would be charged and would face trial, in which a jury would determine his guilt.

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Police Accountability

Scenario 6

A 30-year-old woman repeatedly contacted the police reporting incidents of domestic abuse. Recently, she attempted to leave and her abuser began to assault her. She stabbed him in self-defense and called the police, but by the time they arrived, the ambulance could not resuscitate. Do you:

Domestic Abuse Graphic

Scenario 6

Outcome: The woman would be 70-years-old when released from prison. She would have not been able to parent her children and would return to the community with little to no resources. With a felony record and limited employment history, it would be difficult for her to obtain a job and receive public assistance. She will never have received support for any PTSD from years of abuse.

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Domestic Abuse Graphic

Scenario 6

Outcome: She would not have a felony on her record, making it easier for her to get a job and receive public assistance. Once released from jail, she will still have the necessary community connections to receive support for any PTSD resulting from years of abuse and the economic security to help her stay safe. She can undergo therapy and work on getting custody back and supporting her family.

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Domestic Abuse Graphic
Calendar: October 16 Calendar: October 16

Vote Like Your Rights Depend On It

ACLU Voters demand that candidates for public office commit to protect our democracy, end discrimination, expand rights, and ensure that we live in a nation with liberty and justice for all. An ACLU Voter votes like their rights depend on it (because they do).

A primary election allows the public to indicate their preference for a candidate in their political party. It determines which candidates will be on the ballot in the November election, referred to as a general election.

Mark These Dates

  • September 1

    Absentee and early voting opens for general election.

  • October 16

    Pre-registration ends for general election. If you miss early registration, you can still register to vote in Minnesota at your polling place with same-day registration.

  • November 6: Election Day

Take Action &
Vote for Justice

Voting for justice is more than just casting your ballot on Election Day. It means getting involved and working to ensure that people are informed, mobilized, and engaged 365 days of the year.

Stay connected to the ACLU-MN’s Campaign for Smart Justice and let’s work together to establish justice and equity for all Minnesotans.

Latest Happenings

  • Power to the Podcast: Listening Session

    September 26, 2018 | 5:30-7:00 PM
    Black Dog Cafe - 308 E Prince St. St Paul, MN 55101

    Celebrate the launch of the ACLU of Minnesota's "Power to the Podcast." In our first four-part series, "Power of the Prosecutor," we take a deeper look into one of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system: county attorneys. During our listening session, you'll have a chance to meet some of the guests from our podcast, ask questions, and learn how you can get more involved in the ACLU-MN's Campaign for Smart Justice.

    Learn more
  • Hennepin County Attorney Candidate Forum

    County attorneys are some of the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. They decide who gets charges filed against them, the severity of those charges, or if charges get filed at all. Thousands of people are impacted by the criminal justice systems in Hennepin County, from jails and prisons to probation and conditional-release. Learn where Hennepin County attorney candidates stand on criminal justice reform issues and have a chance to ask them questions!

    Learn more