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The League of Women Voters of Dakota County held a candidate forum on June 22 for the Dakota County Attorney primary election. Four candidates are competing in the August 9 primary, and the top two will advance to the general election on November 8. It’s been 28 years since the last contested Dakota County attorney’s race.
Summary of the Forum
Below is our summary of the six questions and the candidate responses, as well as a direct link to watch each section and see the responses for yourself.
- Keena: I was unanimously appointed in 2021 to fill out term of former county attorney. I’ve devoted 22 years of my life serving the residents of this county in the county attorney’s office. My key priority is public safety by prosecuting crime in a fair and just manner and ensure rights of victims are safeguarded.
- Lamin: My family fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union in 1979. I’ve devoted my life to public service and pursuing justice. I left Russia, an oppressive, arbitrary, and corrupt regime, and I want the opposite—a system that is fair, rationale, professional, and accountable. I’ve been a frontline prosecutor for 16 years.
- Little: I’m running because my daughter deserves a better world than this. I’m disappointed the county attorney’s office has been silent on shootings and taken no action to reduce gun violence. We can turn back trends on violent crime and go after dealers, make sure children are safe in their homes, protect seniors from abuse, end cycles of violence, and end criminalization of poverty.
- Sheridan: In the 35 years I’ve been representing individuals in Dakota County, many of them have been at the pointy end of everything the County Attorney’s office prosecutes. In that time I have arrived at some conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. I have very different ideas about ways we can advance the safety, health, and welfare of the members of this community.
1. How will you ensure public safety and communicate that it is a priority?
- Little: People have to be held accountable. But to do that we need proper staffing. Despite Dakota County being the fastest growing county, the attorney’s office has shrunk.
- Sheridan: Stop doing things that don’t work. Tough on crime has resulted in the largest number of incarcerated people in the world. We need to shift the focus to how can we make this the last time this person is charged with a crime.
- Lamin: I’ve sat with hundreds of victims of crime who are suffering and in pain. People need to be safe and feel safe. We need to do a better job reaching out to the community. There’s no one answer. We have to prioritize.
- Keena: We need a reality check on crime. Dakota County doesn’t have the same level of violent crime as Hennepin or Ramsey County. We do prosecute violent crime aggressively, but that’s not the only solution to public safety. Look upstream on mental health and substance abuse.
2. Do you or do you not support longer sentences for crimes committed while on probation?
- Lamin: If someone commits another crime while they are on probation, it’s important to take that into account.
- Keena: I fully support longer sentences. If you’re on probation and fail to remain law abiding, that should be a factor in your sentencing.
- Sheridan: This proposal was intended to reduce mass incarceration. At a minimum there are two failures—the offender and the person assigned by the judge to supervise that person. There should be accountability all the way around.
- Little: This proposal failed due to politics. Republican wanted a talking point against Democrats and boiled it down to yes/no question, but it’s more complicated. If you’re on probation for violent crimes, you should have longer sentences. But if it’s lower level offense, then no.
3. What approaches would you take toward ending violence against women?
- Sheridan: Laws against domestic violence address the moment of violence and not how we got there. The primary driver of violence is exposure to violence. That begins in the home. Most perpetrators were victims themselves, including corporal punishment.
- Little: In the state Senate I had a bill to require police to investigate allegations of sexual assault. We need to hold people accountable, but you won’t solve everything in the courtroom. Need lots of intersections in terms of housing and income support we need to solve.
- Keena: We currently aggressively prosecute crime against women. Some of the most difficult cases involve victims who recant. You still have to be willing to go forward. We make sure there are orders of protection, no contact orders, we take guns away from abusers, etc. We want to wrap services around the victim and any children that may be involved.
- Lamin: We need to look at this more holistically and victim-centered. When victims report crime and the criminal justice system is involved, that’s the most dangerous time for the victims. We can’t order investigations, we have to build relationships with other agencies. We need a fresh look to find the gaps in the system and work with partners and the community.
4. How would you reduce the risk of violent encounters between police and civilians?
- Keena: Where we see more risk is when officers are called out to a mental health crisis. Those calls can now be routed to a crisis worker. Dakota County is also embedding social workers into local law enforcement agencies.
- Lamin: We need to reach out and build long-lasting relationships with communities. We need to hear their needs, what they’re experiencing, and what we can do to allay their fears. Look at the numbers. Legislature sets the rules on traffic stops and police enforce, but the manner in which they enforce and the support they have is important to fairly and justly enforce those rules.
- Sheridan: Traffic stops feed into the larger problem of the criminalization of poverty. The people getting pulled over have the older cars with taillights out and they’re the people who can least afford to be stopped. We have clinics on car seat installation, why not have clinics where the police help you change a headlight to reduce the potential for these conflicts.
- Little: I authored a bill to create the Smart Center in Dakota County to handle mental health situations and reduce violent encounters. We banned deadly chokeholds and created a duty to intercede. We have to separate civil and criminal manners. No one wants to drive around with a broken taillight or without insurance. If people had the means, they would pay for these things.
5. How would you work to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system?
- Little: Disparities start with housing, education, and food support. The way the county attorney can help is how we prosecute drug laws. We should shift the away from prosecution of marijuana. Also, use the expungement power for low-level drug offenses so they can get housing and a job.
- Sheridan: Drugs is where these disparities are most visible. Sooner or later marijuana will be legalized—how much damage are we going to do to young people, poor people, and people of color while we wait for that to happen? Stop prosecuting marijuana crimes.
- Keena: The question needs to be what are all of us going to do about eliminating racial disparities in the criminal justice system? We need to go upstream. In March 2020 we stopped prosecuting gross misdemeanor drug offenses. I created a pre-trial drug diversion program for low-level drug offenders. We only prosecuted 25 felony marijuana cases last year.
- Lamin: We need to look at the actual numbers. If they’re only prosecuting 25 cases, the disparities aren’t coming from there. We can take this opportunity to reexamine our procedure and look at facts.
Would you consider eliminating the cash bail system in Dakota County?
- Lamin: It’s outlined in our Constitution, so we can’t get rid of it. Cash bail can be very destructive for people who commit low level crimes, but it can also work in reverse. I’m prosecuting a murder case and the perpetrator could afford bail and walked free. It’s for the legislature to look at if it’s appropriate to change, but it’s not working on either end.
- Keena: Bail reform is needed, but I’m not certain what form. 70% of the jail population is people awaiting trial. It has to be changed in the Constitution. I would strongly encourage legislators look at the New Jersey model. They eliminated cash bail but people who pose a threat could be held without bail.
- Little: A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that when they eliminated cash bail for low-level, non-violent offenses, they saw no change in people showing up in court. The results speak for themselves. If I’m elected, we would eliminate bail for low level offenses. It creates a disparity between people who have money and people who don’t.
- Sheridan: Cash bail is a catch phrase and a misnomer. The purpose of bail is to ensure people appear and don’t have to be held in jail. In Dakota County bail is used in an abusive way to gain leverage in settlement negotiations. There’s an appropriate use of bail, anything beyond that is inappropriate and I wouldn’t use it.
- Little: Who can make the change all of us are talking about? If after 22 years the changes haven’t been made, they won’t be made next year. I have proven results.
- Sheridan: Tough on crime fails to recognize reality. The overwhelming majority of offenders will return to the community where they offended. So the question is how will they return? Will they have the tools and mindset to be successful? Or will they return in way that they’re shunned, no one will rent to them, and they can’t get a job?
- Keena: Felony offenses by adults is what we do and it’s all we’ve talked about tonight. The office does a lot more. Because of my dedication, I have experience in every facet of the work, as well as the management and leadership skills. This is my calling.
- Lamin: I bring extensive prosecutorial experience and a fresh perspective. After so many years of the same administration, it’s time for a reset.
Visit our 2022 Primary Election Voter’s Guide for more on the candidates and information about where to vote. Thank you to the League of Women Voters of Dakota County and Eagan TV for making this candidate forum possible.
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