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The Problem Solvers

Prosecution can be redefined to focus on effective problem-solving through policies and initiatives that make us a safer, healthier community.


When I went to law school to be a public defender, I never imagined myself as a prosecutor, much less running for the elected position of Hennepin County Attorney for the greater Minneapolis area.

My thirty-year career at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office included six years as chief public defender. Many of my clients came into the system having experienced horrific abuse and neglect, traumatizing them in ways that led them to cause harm to others. Many prosecutors and judges had difficulty seeing my clients as human beings, because they simply could not see themselves in the people standing before them. They saw defiance, lack of remorse, and disrespect instead of pain, loss of agency, and fear, reflecting their lack of understanding of trauma. They effectively “othered” them in ways that contributed to mass incarceration and did nothing to keep the community safe.



This response essay is part of a roundtable about prosecutors inspired by the new collection Dismantling Mass Incarceration.  Read the entire roundtable here.

As I reflect on my experience as a public defender, I know I made a difference to the many community members I represented, which was deeply rewarding. I also understand that I operated within a system almost entirely controlled by prosecutors. While I had success for individual clients within that framework, I did not have the power to change the system itself.

Why did I make the decision to run for Hennepin County Attorney? I had represented many young Black men with extensive and lengthy histories of trauma going back to early childhood. While it was clear to me that they would not be sitting next to me had there been effective early intervention, there was nothing I could do about that as a public defender. But as Hennepin County Attorney I would have the ability to change the system, improving outcomes for individual people and the broader community.

If our continued definition of a prosecutor’s main function is to criminalize, prosecute, and punish, expecting prosecutors to play a significant role in ending mass incarceration will be fruitless. If, however, we demand that prosecutors focus on effective problem-solving, there is no one better situated—within the criminal legal system—to end mass incarceration.

Prosecutors decide whether to charge, what to charge, and when to negotiate. Their charging decisions—multiple counts, mandatory minimums, etc.—effectively limit a judge’s discretion. Prosecutors control diversion criteria, decide whether to consider immigration consequences, and have the power to petition the court to move a young person to adult court. And yet, throughout my career as a public defender, I did not see the leadership of the county attorney’s office use this power to create effective public safety solutions based in research and data. I ran to redefine prosecution to focus on effective problem-solving through policies and initiatives that make us a safer, healthier community.

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I have been in office for eighteen months, and we have focused on changing structures, policies, and practices to focus on improving outcomes and community safety. Our work will prevent youth from entering the system, help people struggling with substance use disorder to access services, and remove barriers that prevent successful reentry into the community. We should always be clear that the criminal legal system is a poor substitute for addressing the root causes of crime. However, if we focus inside the system, redefining prosecution is the most effective way to reduce mass incarceration.

One clear example is an innovative Youth Auto Theft Initiative that we launched six months into my term, which created a new, voluntary pathway to services for young people and their families. The focus is on keeping young people from coming into the juvenile justice system—something that public defenders and judges simply cannot do. We knew from law enforcement that youth were stealing cars at historically high rates. This trend was not unique to Minneapolis, but the low clearance rates (the rate at which a reported crime leads to police submitting a case for prosecution), which averaged about 2 percent in Hennepin County, made traditional system pathways ineffective. We heard over and over again from law enforcement that they knew who the kids were who were involved in auto theft, they just could not build a case to prove it.

Before my administration, the office’s position was that unless law enforcement brought us a chargeable case, there was nothing for us to do. That position failed to recognize this office’s critical system accountability and lacked an evidence-based problem-solving lens. I also see this as a critical point of system accountability for our office and our partners. Data from law enforcement demonstrated that youth engaging in auto-theft related behaviors put themselves and others at significant risk of harm. With a problem-solving and system accountability lens, our focus became how to effectively intervene to provide needed resources to youth and families outside the traditional system.

Our solution was to create a new pathway for law enforcement to refer youth for outreach and access to voluntary services. Law enforcement share information about a youth with a team from our office, with an important caveat that we will not share any information back about that youth or their family. This is not used to build cases or criminalize youth. Instead, we screen the youth to determine whether they are already receiving services through Hennepin County via child protection, truancy intervention, or an open case in the delinquency system. If not, a social worker reaches out to the youth’s caretaker to offer the family support and help accessing services. If the youth and family choose to participate, they are supported in connecting with community-based services.

This approach is rooted in meaningful collaboration across the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office Children and Families Division, Hennepin County Health and Human Services, law enforcement agencies across Hennepin County, community providers, and young people and their families. And although it is at times a source of frustration for our law enforcement partners, we remain firm in our commitment to not share individual-level information back about youth referred (although we do share aggregate outcomes). Our goal is not to criminalize young people in any way or to open child protection cases. Research is clear that system involvement leads to negative outcomes for youth. Instead, we are seeking to intervene quickly and effectively using evidence-based practices to improve outcomes and community safety.

Not only does the one-year data for our Youth Auto Theft Initiative demonstrate that it is successful, but the results are extraordinary. One year’s worth of data shows that 81 percent of youth who received outreach and voluntary services did not have a subsequent case presented for charging in the juvenile justice system. I can think of no better way to end mass incarceration, within the system, than by not having young people get swept into it in the first place.

And we are seeing a related improvement in community safety. In the first four months of 2023, before we launched this initiative, our office received 246 case submissions for youth motor vehicle theft. In the same period in 2024, after this initiative had been operational for 7 months, we received 121 case submissions for youth motor vehicle theft. This reflects a 51 percent decline in youth auto theft case submissions to our office for prosecution. And the clearance rates for these cases across Hennepin County stayed exactly the same, suggesting that this is a true decline in youth auto theft–related behavior. Implementing problem-solving initiatives that contribute to this type of significant community safety improvement is exactly why I chose to run for county attorney.

We know that system involvement leads to increased harm and negative outcomes. Our Youth Auto Theft Initiative is an example of how we can achieve improved outcomes by transforming the focus of prosecutors toward redirecting people away from the system. We must demonstrate the direct impact on public safety using data and evaluation so that these system reforms are not dependent on who sits in my office.

Image: Martin Adams/Unsplash/Inquest