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Is Hennepin County Ready for Restorative Justice?

Mary Moriarty is running for Hennepin County Attorney, offering a reform model that’s being tested in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Can it happen here?

Mary Moriarty
Courtesy of Mary Moriarty

When Mary Moriarty was contemplating running for Hennepin County Attorney, she kept thinking about a boy—15 years old—charged with felony murder.

Felony murder is when someone kills someone while committing another felony. Or as Moriarty explains it, let’s say you’re a kid, and you’re driving to a convenience store to rob it. Your friend goes in, robs the store and shoots and kills someone. Because you were along to commit the robbery, you can spend the rest of your life in prison.

“Even if he had the best public defender in the world, who did everything that they possibly could, he still would have been working within the framework offered by the prosecutor, which would’ve been life in prison,” Moriarty says. “I think about how that young man never would have gone to prison at 15 if I had been the county attorney.”

Moriarty knows what even the best public defender could’ve done, and the ways in which the power of the prosecutor’s office prevents finding a better solution. She spent 31 years as a Hennepin County Public Defender, including six as Chief Public Defender, the first woman to serve in that role—before she was pushed out of the job in 2020. 

On Monday morning, Moriarty formally announced she is running for Hennepin County Attorney, a role Mike Freeman (who won’t seek re-election) has held for a total of 20 years. It’s a race criminal justice reform advocate Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL-New Hope) says “is one of the most important ones that will appear on the 2022 ballot.”

If she wins, Moriarty would join a recent wave of reform-minded prosecutors, many of them once public defenders or human rights attorneys, who have run off the power of a grassroots criminal justice reform movement, and won in tight battles for an elected position in offices they spent most of their legal careers fighting against.  

The new district attorneys, like Stephanie Morales in Portsmouth, Virginia; Larry Krasner in Philadelphia; Chesa Boudin in San Francisco; José Garza in Travis County, Texas; and George Gascón in Los Angeles, promised to transform the criminal justice system from the inside, and to address the deep and racist practices within them. 

In their first years in office, many worked quickly to initiate new policies like ending cash bail; ending the prosecution of minor drug offenses; increasing accountability for police; and expanding diversion programs. They also worked to begin building evidence-based transformative and restorative justice models to reduce violence and harm, and to address the deep racial disparities.

With the election for County Attorney in November 2022, this next year will be a critical test to see just how far people in Hennepin County are willing to move towards racial justice and criminal justice reform, a commitment many made after the murder of George Floyd that has since been diluted by police-funded campaigns for the status quo. 

Demands for accountability

Moriarty rarely stops talking about or thinking about work—about law and history and justice and how to build it. Nearly all of the things she does in her spare time are still somehow related to work, though she wouldn’t describe it that way.

She lives in the Armatage neighborhood of Minneapolis and relaxes by taking out her pontoon boat on Lake Waconia, a favorite pastime for the past 20 summers, though mostly it’s just an opportunity to read more about her work in a place she loves. While out on the pontoon this summer, Moriarty re-read books by James Baldwin, books about restorative justice, and a really great book about redlining, she says, The Color of Law

Moriarty says she feels grounded there, on the water alone. Raised an only child in a mobile home in Grand Rapids with a single mom who taught high-school English, Moriarty loved reading and memorizing musicals and riding her horse, a gift from her grandpa. 

During the pandemic, Moriarty stayed in the public eye by providing thorough analysis of the Derek Chauvin trial, on Twitter,` and in various local publications. She did find time to connect with some old friends, though. Her former high school choir teacher reached out to invite her to rehearse and perform with a virtual choir. Moriarty is an alto.

The song they performed? An original composition called “Towards Justice.” It came out the day after the Chauvin murder verdict.

“I really enjoyed hearing from the composer about what she thought justice meant, and how she composed this piece to reflect in some spaces how somber it was,” Moriarty says.

Over the past two months, Moriarty has met one-on-one with more than 100 people to learn what people want from a Hennepin County Attorney, and what people want for a better criminal justice system. The themes don’t stray far from each other. Someone who will work to address violence. Someone who will hold police accountable. Someone who will center young people, and reduce recidivism and build better models for re-entry from incarceration.

And nearly all have the same concern at the top of their list: They want to be a part of building solutions, and they want the office to be transparent and accountable to them. 

For Moriarty, that transparency and accountability in the office—and for police—is central to her mission, and to her goal of building a restorative justice model within the attorney’s office. 

The Minneapolis Police Department has a deep and long history of abuse, emboldened for more than 40 years by the attorney office’s often racist “tough on crime” policies forged by Amy Klobuchar and Mike Freeman, and a union contract that allows officers to act with impunity. 

While new laws to strengthen standards for police use of force and federal consent decrees are essential steps toward reform, Moriarty says the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office should be an essential partner in building reform efforts from within, and changing a police culture that has long perpetuated harm and preserved some of the deepest racial disparities in the country.

The office, she says, should ensure that police who have lied under oath or during interrogations are never called in as credible witnesses, and wants an immediate system to track those officers. 

She also wants to develop a police misconduct reporting system, which would require prosecuting attorneys, who often scour hours of body-cam footage, to report any abuse they see by police officers. 

Officers who commit a felony offense will be charged; and officers whose abuse or treatment of people is less severe, including verbal abuse, will be flagged and reported to department leaders where they serve. 

“The Hennepin County Attorney’s office can, absolutely, build accountability for police, while also working alongside police officers who are held to high standards, just like any office, of keeping communities safe,” she says. 

“And the Hennepin County Attorney’s office should also center what victims of crime and communities want and need to heal, and work alongside community partners to interrupt those patterns of violence and trauma, especially for our youth.”

Restorative justice in practice

Comprehensive models for restorative justice exist, and they have been championed by District Attorneys like Boudin and Krasner, who have brought in criminologists and researchers to help usher in evidence-based practices that center victims’ needs for accountability, rather than prosecutors’ needs for winning a prosecution. 

Yet despite the Hennepin County Attorney’s tagline, “Bringing justice to crime victims,” Moriarty says the office hasn’t worked to support the healing victims need, or to provide new models for ensuring that young people who have committed crimes and done harm won’t commit them again. 

Danielle Sered, author of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and the Road to Repair, summarizes our current criminal justice system this way: When someone burns down your house, all that the criminal justice system can do for you is burn down the person’s house who did it; they can’t give a house to live in or the tools you need to rebuild again.

“Punishment is passive,” she said in a July episode of the Chasing Justice podcast. “Restorative justice is active. It is demanding; it is transformative of human behavior. And communities are better and safer for it.”

A 2016 report by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that 77 percent of victims of violent crimes wanted prosecutors to solve neighborhood crime issues, even if it meant fewer convictions. And they overwhelmingly reported that the system never provided them with the support they needed.

In her book, Sered is clear: If we don’t face violence in our communities directly, with compassion and accountability to the survivors of harm and the person who has done the harm, we will never break our cycle of violence and caging human beings. 

Sered is the founder of Common Justice, a leading alternative-to-incarceration and victim-service program founded in New York City and the Bronx with race equity at its center. The vast majority of people in the model as an alternative to prison—or those who are responsible for harm, as Sered says—are young men of color, ages 16-26, many of whom are victims of violence themselves. 

As an alternative to prison, they commit to adhering to agreements for restitution created by the victims and people in the community (such as community service, or going to school or work), and to an intensive 12-15 month violence-intervention program.

So far the model has been an incredible success: Only about seven percent of young people have been terminated from the program for recommitting a crime. 

By contrast, 40 percent of juveniles sentenced to prison on Hennepin County Home School (the juvenile detention center) will, within the first year, be charged with a new crime that will likely send them back to the center or to adult prison, according to the most recent Hennepin County Recidivism Report. Within two years, it’s 55 percent.

Mike Freeman, the current Hennepin County Attorney, has long been known as a “tough on crime” prosecutor—and as soft on police abuse and killings of Black people.

In 2018 Freeman told the Star Tribune he was running for office again because “there are a number of reforms that we started that I want to finish.” Despite this claim, he never reduced disparities or recidivism. Black/African-Americans represent 62 percent of the adult prosecution charges brought by the office from 2017-2021, though they make up only 13.5 percent of the county’s 1.2 million population. What’s more, Black/African-American juveniles make up 65 percent of the total charges brought against youth from 2017-2021 in Hennepin County. 

Moriarty’s ouster

After George Floyd’s murder, the Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform in the Minnesota State Legislature acted swiftly to advance reforms, and called on Moriarty to deliver key insights on new policies, and any possible negative consequences, as Chief Public Defender.

“I knew she would have a lot to say about how racism shapes our justice systems,” says Rep. Carlos Mariani Rosa (DFL-St. Paul), “but I was not aware until then of her fierce courage and clarity to stand sometimes alone in the face of tremendous resistance by conventional institutions to do what is right.”

Nadine Graves worked alongside Moriarty in the public defender’s office for three years. Graves is the board chair of We Are Criminals, a nonprofit dedicated to changing perceptions about what it means to be a criminal, and the host of the podcast The Waiting Room

“Mary’s no nonsense, where she doesn’t mince words,” she says. “She tells it like it is. And she’s always been very for the people, and for the clients that we represented.” 

Yet while people who have worked with her describe Moriarty as a tenacious leader, her candid style and criticism of the criminal justice system has sometimes made her a target of ire.

In December 2019, Moriarty received a letter stating she was being suspended from the Public Defender’s office over allegations she used “inappropriate language” and “fostered a culture of fear.” 

The following September, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense declined to renew Moriarty’s contract. During a heated six-hour public hearing, State Public Defender Bill Ward, Moriarty’s boss, also cited her “inability to work collaboratively with other stakeholders.”

The Board received 175 emails about Moriarty and her work prior to the hearing, all in her support. And in interviews with current and former employees, there were four complaints, two from two people currently in the Public Defender’s office, and two from people no longer working there. One said they felt Moriaty ignored their opinions; another said she left them out of decision-making processes and gave them the “cold shoulder.”

The “stakeholder” in the complaint is the Assistant County Administrator of Public Safety, Mark Thompson. He had told Moriarty a few weeks prior to the announcement that she was “part of a family” in the Hennepin County criminal justice system, and that as a family member, you don’t criticize or talk about the family’s problems in public. 

Moriarty had often noted that the Public Defender’s Office should be a “disparities watchdog for the public safety line of business,”  and charged the office with also conducting analyses of police procedures.

Thompson also objected to Moriarty wearing a “Black Defenders Matter” shirt to the office, which he said if it were up to him, she would be disciplined for because the shirt was “biased.”

The board voted 4-2 against reappointing Moriarty. One of Moriarty’s supporters on the board, Elizer Darris, said the claims against Moriarty were deeply personal in nature, and were “nothing about her performance in the office.”  

Then, in June, without admitted wrongdoing, the Board agreed to pay Moriarty $300,000 as “a complete settlement of all the disputes” between her and state leadership.

Police-sponsored backlash

Nearly all of the new progressive prosecutors across the country have faced an unprecedented and well-funded backlash, centered around misinformation campaigns and recall efforts intent on using public anxieties about crime to undermine any of their attempts to undo the stranglehold of police unions and antiquated “tough on crime” models.

In San Francisco, a second effort is underway to put Boudin in a recall election. In Los Angeles, District Attorney Gascón was sued by the prosecutors in the very office he was elected to run in an attempt to rescind his less punitive policies. And deep-pocketed police unions (who pumped more than $7 million into Gascón’s opponent Jackie Lacey’s 2020 campaign) are supporting prosecutors’ efforts to engineer recall efforts against their boss.

Hennepin County and Minneapolis have faced their own police-sponsored campaigns against reform. The racial reckoning that was promised in the wake of the murder of George Floyd  has been, at the policy level, more like a brief backroom dance.

The charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety has been at the center of misinformation and shadow campaigns that have left communities divided and angry. Conservative groups like Center for the American Experiment have funded lawsuits against the city to bolster the police union and the number of police. 

And in much of the media, the brief flitation with stories about rethinking public safety quickly whiplashed to the decades-long familiar refrain of “we need more police,” as if the murder of a Black man by police has an expiration date.

Yet right next door, Ramsey County Attorney Jon Choi continues to move his office towards reform, announcing in early September he won’t prosecute most felony charges arising from pre-textual, or low-level, traffic stops,  less than two percent of which ever result in gun charges.

Jared Mollenkof, who serves on the board of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, has worked alongside Moriarty as a Hennepin County Public Defender, says the level of pushback on reform efforts here is less a hurdle than an opportunity to shift the narrative about transformative justice, even  in an office of prosecutors who might see Moriarty as a threat to their job, and their belief systems.  

“There are a lot of prosecutors, some people I have worked with, who would welcome having the discretion to be less punitive and the discretion to be creative about how they approach their cases,” he says.

State Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Minneapolis), who serves on the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, says this election is a much-needed opportunity to reshape what criminal justice and public safety could be.

“I think that there’s been some skepticism on the left, frankly, about whether a prosecutor role could be done in a way that is more reform-minded.” he says. 

“And I think that’s been pretty well put to bed at this point. I think it’s an exciting time to think about what a prosecutor’s office, particularly the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, can do to move us forward.”

A powerful statewide grassroots movement for criminal justice reform has become even more savvy and strategic in the last few years, mobilizing and organizing to build meaningful policy change, but also meaningful relationships and power block by block, in an effort to shift narratives around policing, public safety, and restorative justice.

Antonio Williams is part of the People’s Canvass, an organization founded in Minneapolis in 2019 by Rep. Aisha Gomez’s (DFL-Minneapolis) field canvass team. Williams was incarcerated for 11 years in 2009, after being charged in Hennepin County, and has since made it his mission to be out in the community, having one-on-one conversations with people about the need for criminal justice reform.

“Having someone like Mary, who has seen firsthand how aggressively Black and brown people are over-prosecuted and can have those conversations about it, I think is critical if we want to build our way out of a system that doesn’t address harm,” he says. 

He also knows, from his conversations with people at their doorsteps, how much work it will take over this next year to transform mindsets and build meaningful change. 

When asked about how she’ll respond to heavily funded fear campaigns and pressure from outside and inside the system from police, who she will have to also work alongside, Moriarty chuckles and doesn’t miss a beat. 

“I’ve been doing this job for 31 years,” she says. “I know what it’s about. And to me, my job has always been about relationships. But also accountability. And the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office should also be accountable and transparent to the community it serves, and to undoing harm and trauma and making more people feel safe. The office hasn’t been about that yet. But I know this is something we can and must build.”