Millions of extra dollars are working their way through the Minnesota Legislature to both beef up the ability of Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office to prosecute violent crime and the state’s public defender system to relieve the staffing shortages that nearly led to a strike last year.
Ellison assembled the team that got former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin convicted of murdering George Floyd in 2021, but the Democratic attorney general had been unable for four years to persuade a divided Legislature to give him more money to hire more prosecutors. Now that Democrats control both chambers of the statehouse, Ellison is eager to get that money.
The House was expected to vote Monday evening to give the attorney general’s office a quick $269,000 from the state’s $17.6 billion budget surplus and an extra $2 million a year thereafter, on top of its regular budget. The Senate approved the money last week and Ellison expects Democratic Gov. Tim Walz to sign it soon.
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Ellison’s office was down to just one criminal prosecutor after years of budgetary pressures when he took office in 2019. He was able to raise that to three, but the former Senate Republican majority refused to fund any more despite a large budget surplus. Republican lawyers wanted him to reassign lawyers who were working on consumer protection and business regulation instead. The office had as many as 12 prosecutors as of 1998. The bill will let Ellison hire around seven new attorneys, and he said he hopes to add them in the next six to eight weeks.
“Today we want to really build it back,” Ellison said at a news conference ahead of the debate. “Today recognize that the counties need the help. We recognize the spike in crime. We recognize the financial and fiscal pressures on our counties. And mostly we recognize the pain of the victims.”
Democratic House Majority Leader Jamie Long, of Minneapolis, said the money will let the attorney general’s office take on around 70 to 80 additional cases annually.
Staffing became an issue in the 2022 election campaign, in which unsuccessful GOP candidate Jim Schultz accused Ellison of being too soft on crime. Ellison repeatedly pointed out that his office, by law, can take over a criminal case only at the request of local prosecutors or the governor.
When the attorney general’s office prosecutes criminal cases, they’re usually complex cases in rural counties where local prosecutors are short on resources and expertise, such as the shooting of a police officer in Albert Lea. Or they’ve been politically charged cases, such as Chauvin’s trial or the successful manslaughter prosecution of Officer Kim Potter in the Taser mix-up shooting death of Daunte Wright. Ellison noted that 44 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have three or fewer prosecutors.
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Earlier Monday, the House voted unanimously for more funding for the state Board of Public Defense so that it can meet what the American Bar Association recommends for manageable caseload standards. The bill contains $154 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $164 million for the next, setting the board’s full budget for the next two years. A similar bill is sailing through Senate committees, and Walz is expected to sign it, too.
The Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, of Roseville, told reporters it works out to around a $50 million annual increase from current levels. The extra money had bipartisan support in the 2022 session but stalled out amid partisan gridlock on other issues.
“The integrity of our entire justice system rests on the public defense system,” Becker-Finn said. “You want to talk about liberty? None of those rights mean anything if you don’t have assistance of counsel, and you don’t have an adequate assistance of counsel. Outcomes should not be dictated based on your access to wealth.”
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The state’s 470 public defenders came within days of walking out and bringing much of the state court system to a standstill before a deal was reached last March. They said they were pushed to the brink by routinely high caseloads that became unmanageable amid the coronavirus pandemic. They also complained their pay lagged far behind what prosecutors sitting across the table from them made. The money will help the board both raise pay and add lawyers.