Reforms on policing, substance abuse, and juvenile detention are top of the list for Hennepin County Attorney candidate Mary Moriarty. This fall, the former chief public defender of Hennepin County is running for Minnesota’s largest public law office, having advanced past the primary in August.
Moriarity was among six other candidates but won 36% of the vote despite having such a crowded field. Martha Holton Dimick earned 18% of the vote, leading both her and Moriarty to vie for the office on November 8.
Born in New Ulm, Minnesota, Moriarty moved to the Twin Cities to attend Macalester College and later the University of Minnesota Law School. After receiving her law degree, she began her career as a public defender in Hennepin County, six years of which she served as the county’s first female chief public defender, leading a staff of 140 attorneys and 70 support staff.
Moriarty, 58, retired in 2021 after a 31-year career in public service where she oversaw tens of thousands of cases and built a reputation of fighting against systemic inequities within Hennepin County.
Here, Moriarty speaks to the MSR about her experience as chief public defender, how she’s amassed a coalition of supporters, and how, if elected, she plans to use research and data as the Hennepin County Attorney.
MSR: What made you decide to run for the Hennepin County Attorney’s office?
MM: I want more for this community. I want public safety for everyone. I think we need accountability for community members and police. There are many areas where we can put more resources into helping our youth.
The prosecutor is the most powerful entity in the system, and that’s really where you can make the most change. Right now we’re at a point where we need public safety, and a way to get public safety is through reform.
MSR: While working as the chief public defender, you called out the practices of police officers in Minneapolis for their sting operations. How did that experience shape your role?
MM: Our lawyers were picking up cases where people were approached by undercover police officers to sell their small amount of marijuana. We discovered that 46 out of the 47 people who were charged were Black. The intersection there is that we were working with the County Attorney’s Office or trying to work with them to tell them that this was a problem, and they were not interested in doing anything about it.
When I first became chief public defender, I had reached out to the city council members and the mayor and said, “Hey, I’m the new chief public defender. I’d love to meet with you.” I think most of them said that they didn’t know that there was a chief public defender because the City and the County had operated in siloes.
I met with the mayor and I showed him some police reports about what was happening, and he and the Minneapolis Police Department put a stop to those stings.
MSR: What’s the importance of a county attorney and how would you utilize your role to make changes?
MM: The Hennepin County Attorney decides who to charge, who not to charge, what to charge them with, whether to send them to diversion. So they ultimately control a person’s trajectory into the system or not. By virtue of being charged, even if your case gets dismissed, you’ve still been charged and it’s in the computer. It may be reported in the paper. You could be put in jail. So there are consequences for simply being charged.
MSR: You often speak about data and how it’s helped you visualize the issue with our criminal justice system. How would you use data if elected to the County Attorney’s Office?
MM: I’m a big data and research person. I think that that’s how we make sure that the policies and practices are actually working, and if they’re not working, we need to make a change.
An example of that was when we at the public defender’s office, when I was chief, kept track of traffic stops. The Minneapolis Police Department does have a data dashboard, and anybody can look at the data dashboard and you can see that there are tremendous racial disparities in traffic stops. In other words, when a driver is stopped for a minor driving violation or equipment violation, the number of Black drivers that are stopped is far out of proportion to the percentage of Black residents in Minneapolis.
But what we couldn’t answer by looking at the data dashboard—people were saying it was getting contraband, drugs and guns off the street, but we couldn’t tell that just from those numbers.
So we made a request to the Minneapolis Police Department and did receive a 19,000-lined excel spreadsheet, and we crunched the numbers, and we found that for every Back driver stopped and searched, the police found a gun in less than half of 1% of the time. The data also indicated that White drivers had a slightly higher rate of contraband, too.
The way I would use it [data] as county attorney is to say, hey, half of 1% is not an effective use of limited resources at all, and we have to think about the impact on the community. 99.5% of these Black drivers are walking away from these interactions, which very well may have been traumatic, and they’ve done nothing.
Is that the kind of relationship police want to build with their community? We don’t need to question why this is happening. We need to see that it is happening, and it is having a big impact. It’s not a good use of resources, so what can we do to change this?
MSR: Your campaign website lists a number of reforms and changes that you’d like to make as county attorney. What are some of those issues at the top of your list?
MM: One of my focal points is youth, and I know they need more resources. I think we’re failing our youth, and we need to build up the kinds of services that will actually help our youth.
By services, I mean mental health treatment and chemical dependency treatment—the kinds of help that will address the issues that bring youth into the system. I’ve worked really hard to talk to school board members as well because I think that’s an important connection. The county attorney handles all juvenile cases in Hennepin County, and we need to figure out ways of helping youth not get into this system and get the help that they need.
Another priority is approaching substance abuse from a public health perspective. We have criminalized the use of drugs for many many years, and we right now are in the midst of the opioid crisis where we’re having many, many people tragically die of overdoses.
We don’t always use best practices in the system. We don’t always treat people as though we want them to recover.
There are other things that we can be doing and we need to make sure that people are getting the best kind of care they can get, which means trauma-informed treatment. It means culturally appropriate and specific treatment. It means medication-assisted treatment. We need more of those kinds of services as well.
MSR: You’ve been outspoken about the mishandling of justice that resulted in the death of George Floyd and the subsequent trial of Derek Chauvin. Can you tell us what a county attorney could do to prevent this from happening again?
MM: Chauvin was around for a long time and predated a lot of the videos we have. But I have seen plenty of videos; in fact, I think public defenders and prosecutors see more videos than police leadership does, and when we see violations of policy, even if they’re relatively minor ones, the County Attorney’s Office needs to be sharing that with police leadership, because there may just need to be a conversation there about what’s going on with police officers that particular day.
In that way perhaps we could nip the next Chauvin in the bud. Chauvin started out some way somehow, and his conduct just seemed to escalate. Part of the responsibility of the County Attorney’s Office, in my mind, is to be flagging that video where we see behaviors that are just not desirable that I assume the police departments want to address, so that we can work on getting police officers who are good at their jobs.
As county attorney, my job is to prosecute violent crime, and I can’t do that effectively unless we have good police work.
MSR: Former Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was criticized for his handling of George Floyd’s death at the hands of MPD officers. What does accountability look like to you if elected to this position?
MM: You will see me being much more transparent. I will be sharing data with the public and sharing policies with the public. They won’t have to try to figure out what the policy is. Decisions that I make will be transparent. I will be accountable and accessible to the public as well.
MSR: What is your main pitch to voters this November on why they should vote for you?
MM: I’m very proud that we’ve built an extremely broad and diverse coalition across Hennepin County, and you can see that in the primary result. We won precincts all over the county, including in North Minneapolis where we won resoundingly. I don’t take that for granted, however.
We are continuing to build our coalition, and the people in our coalition don’t always agree with each other on every issue, but we all agree on one thing and that’s the status quo isn’t working for any of us.
That means we need changes that are based on data and research. We need to be able to effectively prosecute violent crime, and that takes good police work. We need to effectively treat youth in a way that they’re not coming back into the system.
So this is a position that greatly affects our community, and it has a great deal of discretion. And if [voters] are unsatisfied with the way things are going they should be excited to vote for me, because I do bring change and public safety, and I do bring the experience to be able to implement those ideas in Hennepin County.
MSR: You’ve got a variety of endorsements listed on your campaign website. Can you speak to the relationships you’ve built up during your professional career and how it reflects your supporters?
MM: I have spent the past year talking to people all over Hennepin County. I’ve talked to community leaders, I’ve talked to electeds, I’ve talked to heads of organizations, and I’ve asked them one question and that is what do you want to see in the next Hennepin County Attorney?
I’ve asked them that because, although I have 31 years of experience inside the system, and I know how it works, I want to know how it’s impacted them. I want to know what their ideas are for making it work better.
The reality is, we have shared values. As I said, we might not all agree on the issues, but we all have shared values. We value the people in our community. We value public safety. We value children all over the community. We want more for everyone in the community, and that’s what brings us together.
That’s why you’ll see people endorse me from all walks of life. We all agree that what we’re doing right now in Hennepin County is not working, and we need change to keep us safer and to have a more just system.
For more on Mary Moriarty’s candidacy, go to www.maryforhennepin.com.
Abdi Mohamed is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.