Candidates for the Dakota County Attorney primary in 2022

2022 Dakota County Attorney Primary Election: Criminal Justice Reform

Thanks to West St. Paul Chiropractic and Southview Animal Hospital for their support.

The county attorney is on the ballot this year in Dakota County. Four candidates are running for Dakota County attorney, the first time the race has been contested since 1994. The top two in the primary will advance to the general election in November. We’ve asked the candidates a series of questions to see where they stand on the issues. We’ll share one question and the responses at a time leading up to the primary election on August 9. See our 2022 primary voter’s guide for more.

We’ve also asked about the role of county attorney, public safety, and the candidates’ top priorities. This time around we asked about criminal justice reform. There’s also a series of yes/no questions about basic political positions in our printable voter’s guide.

Criminal justice reform has included topics such as mass incarceration, marijuana decriminalization, police accountability, bail reform, victim advocacy, and more. What criminal justice reforms are important to you and how will you enact them?

We posed this question to all candidates. Here are their responses:

Kathy Keena

(campaign site)

My two top criminal justice reform topics are mass incarceration and bail reform. Nationally,
more than 50% of those incarcerated have some type of mental health history; and 68% of
those incarcerated have a substance use disorder—many people have both. It is for that reason
one of my top priorities is to continue working on solutions to divert people who have a mental
health and/or substance use disorder from becoming justice involved; and if they do become
justice involved, to divert them from the criminal justice system to diversion programs and/or
treatment courts when it’s appropriate to do so. Currently, my office offers a pretrial drug
diversion program as well as a low-level property offender diversion program; and my office
participates in Dakota County Drug Court and the Carver Dakota Veterans Treatment Court.

As to bail reform, one of the obstacles to achieving reform in Minnesota is a provision in
Minnesota’s Constitution which provides that all defendants have the right to bail. I support bail
reform similar to what was adopted in New Jersey whereby bail was eliminated; however,
judges have the authority to order someone held without bail if the person poses a significant
threat to public safety.

Elizabeth Lamin

(campaign site)

Historically, prosecution meant obtaining convictions and seeking incarceration. But that overly simplified view of justice led to what we now recognize as unjust results. If you only have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. In the past, County Attorneys had very few tools at their disposal to respond to criminal offenses. But now we have a fundamentally better understanding of crime and recidivism. We know there are more tools out there than just a hammer. There is no excuse anymore for treating everything like a nail. Criminal Justice Reform is the process by which we help connect compassion and justice while building bridges to overcome the justice system’s historical failures. The Dakota County Attorney’s Office needs to expand its treatment court programs, which are more cost-effective and have better outcomes for public safety than the traditional prosecution and prison model. This will also free up additional resources so that law enforcement and prosecutors can focus on investigating and prosecuting repeat and violent offenders that require greater attention. Moreover, I will bring in and empower the voices of community partners and leaders, including our dedicated employees, victims, community advocates, and law enforcement. By building relationships built on trust and transparency, our justice system can build back some of the lost trust with communities. With strong community ties and involvement, we can collectively respond to incidents or crises that otherwise strain public trust in our system and employees.

Matt Little

(campaign site)

ENSURING JUSTICE FOR ALL: Matt will ensure that the County bail system is not used to keep nonviolent low income people accused of minor crimes from getting to their jobs or home to their kids. Matt will advocate for decriminalizing expired tabs and nonviolent low-level drug offenses; and to change the punishments for minor traffic stops to civil, not criminal, penalties.

UPDATING OUR APPROACH TO SAFETY: Police cannot be effective if their communities cannot trust them to treat everyone fairly, but also if in addition to fighting crime, they must also serve as social workers, mediators, drug counselors, paramedics, and family counselors. As County Attorney, Matt will prioritize diverting nonviolent issues such as mental illness, drug use, and family disputes to other professionals, while focusing police time and resources for cracking down on the most serious threats to the safety of our community.

SMARTER MARIJUANA ENFORCEMENT: Matt will raise the amount for what constitutes a felony charge for marijuana possession, and will advocate for comprehensive reform of Minnesota’s marijuana laws. Matt will prosecute major, predatory drug dealers, and cartel members to the fullest extent of the law, while expunging minor marijuana possession convictions from records.

PROVIDING TIMELY JUSTICE BY ADDRESSING BACKLOGGED CASES: Dakota County has a substantial backlog of cases as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt will advocate strongly for increased funding to support fighting crime and prosecuting cases quickly and completely, using technological improvements, as well as a reassessment of current work practices to reduce the backlog.

Jeff Sheridan

(campaign site)

As I indicated earlier, the biggest challenge facing our criminal legal system is that it is not designed to solve problems. The focus of everyone in the system should be on two things. First, keeping people from ever ending up in the system in the first place. That means supporting youth after-school programs and summer jobs programs, both of which have proven to be the best “bang for our (tax dollar) buck.” Dakota County kids who stay out of the system have futures filled with endless possibilities. But second, for those who end up in the system, we must focus our energy in making sure this is their last visit. Most crime is the result of poverty, addiction or failing mental health (or some combination of the three). By taking an interest in determining what brought a particular person to the attention of authorities, the county can allocate its substantial resources to address that person’s (and likely many other similarly situated people’s) needs. But if all we do is warehouse them in our jail (at a rate of $60 each per day to taxpayers), we not only didn’t solve their problem, but we likely made it worse. And if that’s the best we have to offer, then we need to stop pretending that we don’t understand recidivism. If your system takes away every legitimate means of someone’s survival, you leave only the illegitimate ones. We have to get Smart on Crime!

Vote on August 9

The primary election is on Tuesday, August 9. Learn more about where and how to vote. You can also vote early with an absentee ballot, either by mail or by stopping at the Dakota County offices.

See our 2022 primary voter’s guide for more on the candidates and other races.

Thank you to the candidates for taking the time to respond to our questions.

Support West St. Paul Reader to ensure local election coverage can continue.

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