Other’s opinion: Rural counties need AG expertise

Published 5:45 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Feb. 11

A new infusion of funds will provide it, along with better public defense.

Minnesota took two important steps recently toward better, stronger and swifter justice and public safety in this state.

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After four years of requests, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison finally will get a badly needed and ongoing legislative infusion of funds to bolster the criminal prosecution division of his office. The expertise and staffing power he will add are crucial, especially to outstate county attorneys who already have too few resources when confronted with complex or high-profile cases.

Second, but no less important, the Legislature has also moved to substantially increase public defender funding, vital to a system that is the last resort of the indigent and a vital piece of ensuring a more effective system of justice that gets it right the first time.

Shockingly, the criminal division of the AG’s office now stands at just three prosecutors. And that is two more than it was when Ellison was first elected. Compare that to 25 years ago, when the same office had a dozen attorneys specializing in complex or high-profile criminal cases, ready and willing to assist county attorneys across the state when they needed to tap that expertise.

The House and Senate recently voted to give Ellison’s office $4.3 million over the next few years to hire seven new attorneys and support-staff members.

Ellison told an editorial writer that the new attorneys will be “tremendously helpful to counties throughout the state.” The assistance, he said, could cover more than just long, complicated murder trials. “There are incredibly complex human trafficking cases in rural counties that cross all kinds of jurisdictional lines, same with financial exploitation and other cases,” Ellison said. “We have had to rebuild the criminal division from the ground up, but with this funding, I can say, ‘We’re back.’ “

The benefits that can yield were clear earlier this month, when the Attorney General’s Office came in at the request of Cook County and obtained a conviction in the gruesome murder of Ricky Balsimo. After Balsimo was killed in St. Paul, his body was dismembered in Superior, Wis., then transported to Grand Portage, Minn., where Robert T. West obtained a boat to dump the remains into Lake Superior.

Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken told an editorial writer that her office had not had to take a murder case to trial in 22 years, let alone one of such sweeping complexity. “My office has two attorneys,” Hicken said, “including me.”

Hicken said a murder trial “takes immense resources. This specific one had 2,500 pages of discovery, days’ worth of recordings. It would have been total nightmare.” Ellison’s office, she said, was able to supply a prosecutor with 22 years of experience in homicide cases. “He knows the issues that can come up,” Hicken said. “He works with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He has relationships with forensic scientists. We simply don’t have that expertise and resources.”

Hicken said she is far from alone in this predicament. Of the state’s 87 counties, she said, “24 have two or fewer attorneys in their county office. Fourteen more have just three.” County attorneys also have many responsibilities beyond court cases, she said, including providing counsel to local officials, reviewing contracts, negotiating cases and even writing ordinances.

“We need access to equal justice in rural Minnesota,” Hicken said. “That includes access to justice for crime victims. Victims here deserve the same type of skilled prosecution for their cases that they would get in Hennepin County.”

Hicken said that even reaching out to local private practice attorneys is not enough. “We don’t have a lot of attorneys living and working here,” she said. “It’s just a much smaller pool.”

On the flip side of the justice coin, the Legislature also moved unanimously to give a $96 million boost to public defender funding. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, who sponsored the bill, rightly noted at the time that “outcomes should not be dictated based on your access to wealth. … The integrity of our entire justice system rests on the public defense system.” That bill now moves to the Senate, where passage is expected.

Ellison said strong prosecution and strong defense are important aspects of a well-functioning, effective criminal justice system. “Public defender money is such an important part of that,” said Ellison, a former public defender. “They’re underpaid, overworked and not able to keep pace with prosecutors. I know a lot of good, young public defenders who became prosecutors just because it pays more.”

Additionally, he noted, “a bad public defense just creates problems down the line. No prosecutor wants to win a case that creates appellate issues because defendants were inadequately represented.”

Minnesota needs robust prosecution that includes help when outstate county attorneys need it as well as a vigorous system of public defense that includes some of our best and brightest. That is the path to a stronger criminal justice syste