Without pursuing reform, Mary Moriarty said, the criminal justice system will not be able to provide public safety or level racial disparities.
“A just system and reform go hand-in-hand,” Moriarty said.
Moriarty gained this insight after working 31 years with the Hennepin County Public Defender’s office, including six years as the chief public defender.
“I’m the only person in this race who has actually led a large law office,” Moriarity said. The Hennepin County Public Defender’s office had about 120 lawyers when she was there.
Moriarty said she also held various other leadership positions within the public defender’s office, like chairing the Behavioral Health Committee, work that led to the creation of Hennepin County’s Behavioral Health Center where officers can take people who are experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises.
“I worked out a process with the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office that they would not charge many of the cases if the person was brought there,” Moriarity said.
Moriarty, 58, who was raised in New Ulm, settled in Minneapolis during law school. She retired as a public defender in 2021 but teaches at the University of Minnesota and Harvard University law schools and helps train people who want to be prosecutors in southern states like Alabama and Mississippi.
“I do a lot of training, which I think is really important when you have a young office, which the county attorney’s office is,” Moriarty said.
She often gets asked about going from county public defender to county prosecutor. She said her time as a public defender helped her see what an ideal prosecutor might look like.
“I sat next to and represented people. I knew their social histories. I knew that they had been subjected to a lot of trauma in their life. Had we intervened early on they might not have been sitting in that chair next to me. I also watched how people who had been harmed or victims had been treated by the county attorney’s office. Often that wasn’t good. I know the judges, I know the system really well,” she said.
Moriarty said she wants a public safety system that does not result in mass incarceration, racial disparities, and people cycling in and out of the system. That includes youth and those struggling with chemical dependency and mental health conditions, she said.
As for violent crimes like murders and carjackings, Moriarty said that deterrence — delivering strict punishment — does not “do a heck of a whole lot.”
Instead, she is in favor of investing more in communities through programs that serve residents who have been dealing with high levels of gun violence for decades. For example, she said, there are ongoing programs that train young people to talk to their peers about emotions that may lead to criminal acts. Another program trains “trusted messengers” in conflict resolution, and another seeks out the loved ones and friends of victims of violence in order to persuade them to not retaliate.
Moriarty also said she would push for diversion programs for youth and people struggling with mental health and addiction. She was on the Hennepin County steering committee for drug court, veteran court, and mental health court, and said she knows how to craft such diversion initiatives.
Moriarty said she would not prosecute “anyone seeking reproductive care” in Minnesota. “If they came from another state and that other state was trying to prosecute or extradite them, or serve a subpoena for them to testify in another state, I would object to that,” Moriarty said.
But she is interested in ratcheting up accountability for police officers.
“I’ve seen body cam and dash cams and cameras in police cars. Hours of it,” Moriarty said. “ I don’t think people realize it’s prosecutors who see that video more than police leadership. As county attorney, I will have us flag behavior we see, policy violations, and make sure police leadership are seeing that so they can intervene and add it to their file.”