Opening Remarks: Why do you want this job and what qualifications do you bring to the position?
I am the Chief Deputy in the Dakota County Attorney’s Office and currently serve as the Acting Dakota County Attorney. I joined the office in April 2000 and have worked in both the criminal and civil divisions. In June 2013 I was promoted to the position of Criminal Division Head followed by my promotion to Chief Deputy in July 2019. My public service career includes working as a public defender in Douglas County followed by my service in the Lyon County Attorney’s Office for seven years, five of those as the Lyon County Attorney.
I want to serve as the Dakota County Attorney so I can advance the mission of the office as our society addresses important social and criminal justice issues. My experience in key leadership positions has prepared me to effectively lead the office forward. In carrying out my duties, I will continue to act with integrity and balanced judgment to serve the best interests of the citizens of Dakota County.
Mass Incarceration: Minnesota has a problem with mass incarceration and county attorneys can help address this issue through their charging discretion. How will you begin to rectify the harms of mass incarceration if chosen?
In exercising their charging discretion, prosecutors in the Dakota County Attorney’s Office are prohibited from “overcharging” felony level cases in an attempt to pressure defendants into pleading guilty. Instead, my expectation is that our prosecutors will truly act as ministers of justice in performing their duties and when making charging decisions, take into account such things as: (1) the nature and circumstances of the offense; (2) the probability of obtaining a conviction; (3) the potential sanction if convicted, including potential collateral consequences; (4) the characteristics of the suspect (i.e., mental health and/or substance abuse disorders, criminal history, demonstrated dangerousness of suspect); and (5) the wishes of the alleged victim.
To reduce the incarceration rate, I support the use of: (1) sentencing alternatives such as electronic home monitoring, sentence to service and community work service; (2) treatment courts and services to address mental health and/or substance abuse disorders; and (3) pretrial release programs in place of cash bail in appropriate cases.
In addition, I support a different approach in how we address warrants for people who fail to appear for a court hearing. For example, most of the complaints issued by our office are summons complaints rather than warrant complaints. Many times, people do not appear for their first appearance on a summons complaint because they did not receive notice of the hearing as a result of moving or being homeless. This usually results in the court issuing a bench warrant for the person’s arrest. During the pandemic, I instituted a practice whereby our office instead requests a stayed bench warrant to allow us to attempt to locate an address for the person for the purpose of re-issuing the summons. During the pandemic, I was also instrumental in obtaining an order from our Chief Judge delegating authority to the Dakota County Sheriff to quash misdemeanor warrants and provide the person with a new court date; and in consultation with our criminal justice partners, I helped coordinate a streamlined process for quashing felony warrants and issuing new court dates when appropriate. I hope to continue these practices post-pandemic.
Pre-Trial Diversion: Currently diversion is limited to either 5th degree drug possession cases or people charged with property cases with no criminal history whatsoever (even misdemeanors disqualify individuals from property diversion). What actions will you take to increase the opportunities and the eligibility for individuals to participate in diversion?
The Dakota County Attorney’s Office has had an adult diversion program in place for first time low level property offenders since approximately 1994. Upon becoming the Acting Dakota County Attorney, I modified the eligibility requirements for admission into the program with the intent to increase the opportunities for people to participate. The changes include:
• The phrase “first time low level property offender” was redefined as it applies to juvenile adjudications. Persons who were adjudicated delinquent for a felony, gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor level offense are no longer excluded from participating in the program, unless they were adjudicated as an extended juvenile jurisdiction (EJJ). If adjudicated as EJJ, a person may still qualify for admission if the adult sentence was not executed and 5 years have elapsed since the person’s discharge from probation.
• A restriction preventing juveniles from participating in the program if they previously participated in a juvenile diversion program was removed.
• A person may be admitted into the program who has previously participated in a diversion program or received a stay of adjudication or continuance for dismissal if the person successfully completed the terms of the diversion program/stay of adjudication/continuance for dismissal; and 5 years have elapsed from the discharge date.
• A person may be considered a first time low level property offender despite a conviction for a non-traffic related misdemeanor conviction if five years have elapsed since the date of conviction.
• To participate in the program, the person must provide a factual basis. A person may provide a factual basis either on the record in open court or through the use of an affidavit that is kept in our file rather than being filed with the court. I added the latter method to help alleviate any potential immigration and/or employment collateral consequences.
• The disqualifying dollar amount was increased from $3,500 to $5,000 or less.
Bail: What do you propose to do for individuals who are arrested and cannot afford bail? On any given day in Minnesota 6,000 people (pre-Covid number) are sitting in jail because they can’t afford bail, a disproportionate number of people of color, this is harming our communities, how will you fix it?
In making bail requests, our prosecutors follow the criminal rules of procedure and take into consideration whether the person poses a significant risk to public safety and/or whether there’s a substantial likelihood the person will not reappear for court. If one is prepared, our prosecutors also consider information provided in the pretrial release evaluation completed by community corrections. Our office does not request bail in cases in which the complaint was issued as a summons.
I’m currently participating in a Dakota County workgroup that is studying ways in which to reduce the number of people congregated in the Dakota County Jail. Similar to national statistics, approximately 70% of those being held in the jail are in pretrial status. In conjunction with the study, I will be examining our bail request practices and engaging in conversations with our prosecutors about the utilization of other options besides cash bail, such as conditional release with no bail or the pretrial release program operated by community corrections.
Keeping Families Together: What will you do to try to keep families together as opposed to defaulting to removing children from their families, placing them in the overburdened foster care system, and terminating parental rights?
Dakota County Social Services in consultation with the Dakota County Attorney’s office makes significant efforts to engage families with voluntary services before resorting to foster placement and court involvement. When a report of maltreatment or abuse is received, significant attention is given during the initial assessment to address the specific needs of each family in order to eliminate safety concerns that would otherwise prevent children from remaining with their parents. Once needs are addressed, a variety of voluntary services are offered and may include brief counseling, parent educational support programs, safety planning with parents and extended family members, and voluntary case management with parents to assist them with staying on task with services needed to resolve safety concerns.
Typically, court involvement resulting in out of home placement only occurs when there is significant risk to the child (e.g. sexual abuse) or there is substantial likelihood that the parent will not follow through with voluntarily services addressing the safety concerns or voluntary efforts have been made as outlined above and have been unsuccessful in addressing the safety concerns.
When out of home placement is necessary, significant efforts are made to locate family members or relatives to provide care while efforts continue to be made toward reunification. If non-relative foster care is utilized because of safety issues, the foster parent’s role is to provide a bridge to parents to enable children to ultimately return home as soon as possible and to keep children connected with their parents.
In Dakota County, we utilize Family Decision Making Meetings (FDMM) at the front-end (before removal, before court) allowing parents to participate and determine a safe plan for their child(ren) while parents work on resolving whatever safety issues brought them to our attention. It is often during these meetings that extended family members, or close friends are located to assist parents with safe care of their children. The benefit to FDMM is that parents are engaged in locating an alternative placement for their children while they resolve the safety concerns.
Dakota County is always striving to find ways to reduce out of home placements because of the obvious benefits for children who can safely remain with their parents. Recently, a new safety practice model was adopted by Dakota County Social Services and implementation is in progress. The goal of this model is to ensure that children are only placed for true safety issues that cannot be otherwise addressed or corrected by some other response.
As County Attorney, would you join with other prosecutors around the country, including Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, in recognizing that the State should adopt policies to consider potential immigration consequences of criminal convictions in order to resolve cases in a manner that does not impose collateral penalties on a non-citizen which are out of proportion to the crime charged and to avoid the break-up families and our community?
Yes. In the meantime, if appointed, I will modify our office’s charging and disposition guidelines to reflect that this is a factor a prosecutor may take into consideration when charging a case and/or extending a plea offer.
What would you do to reduce the number of juveniles - particularly youth of color, who are brought into the criminal justice system? What policies would you put in place to ensure fair and unbiased use of prosecutorial discretion in juvenile court?
Our office has a long standing history of utilizing pre-charge diversion programs to divert youth from the juvenile justice system. I will continue to utilize these programs and develop new ones if needed. The current diversion programs include: (1) alcohol and marijuana program; (2) disorderly conduct offender program; (3) juvenile fire setter program; (4) misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor and felony property offender programs; (5) peer court; and (6) targeted accountability for harmful sexual behavior also known as TAP. The Dakota County Attorney’s Office is the only one in Minnesota to offer the TAP program. In addition to these diversion programs, our office has a juvenile drug court program which is the only one in existence in Minnesota.
As to policies, I recognize that children of color are disproportionally represented in the juvenile justice system. This is something our office has always closely monitored and reacted to; and it is something I will continue to do if appointed. It is one of the primary reasons our office offers a wide array of diversion programs.
If appointed, I will continue to support the current policies and procedures utilized by our office for juveniles petitioned into court but will modify them if necessary. Our office recognizes that juveniles are still in the development stage. It is our policy to take this into consideration when making plea offers or recommending dispositions to the court. In considering case dispositions, it is our policy to focus on the rehabilitation of young people by affording them culturally appropriate opportunities for treatment or other support services as alternatives to incarceration. In addition, generally speaking, it is our policy to offer stays of adjudication in the vast majority of cases we prosecute to afford juveniles the opportunity to avoid a juvenile record and any future negative impacts that may present.