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COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA - August 27, 2019 (LSN) The County Attorney acts as the chief prosecutor for crimes occurring in Cook County and the City of Grand Marais. The office frequently receives questions about how and why cases are resolved from victims of crime or witnesses. On occasion members of the public also have questions when results of court cases are published
Ethics rules prohibit a prosecutor from charging a crime unless probable cause (adequate evidence) exists, and County Attorney policy requires that there be a reasonable likelihood of success at trial. Why, then, would a charge later be dismissed in favor of a plea to another? Why must a prosecutor “bargain” at all in a criminal case? How does the judge come up with sentences?
A prosecutor has the role of “minister of justice” and is not just an advocate for a specific client. National District Attorneys Association standards require that prosecutors seek justice, including ensuring that the guilty are held accountable, that the innocent are protected from unwarranted harm, and that the rights of all participants, particularly victims of crime, are respected. Seeking justice does not always mean conviction of a charged offense, however. A defendant who stands up and takes responsibility in front of the judge for some part of the crime (“pleads guilty”), for example, has a much greater likelihood of success during probation and is less likely to re-offend than someone found guilty at trial.
In each plea negotiation, we must take into account: victim wishes, characteristics of the defendant, law enforcement wishes, and the societal benefit gained from settlement versus trial. On top of the challenge of proving the case, each case has the potential to present other special challenges. The defendant may not be competent to stand trial or may have committed the crime as the result of mental health or chemical dependency issues which need to be resolved. A victim of crime who is a crucial witness at trial may not be in favor of prosecution even when public policy requires us to move forward and hold the defendant accountable, such as in some cases of domestic abuse or sexual misconduct.
Every defendant facing a potential jail sentence has a constitutional right to a jury trial, but from the perspective of either “side” in a case, it is sometimes difficult to predict how a jury will decide a case. Will they take the right facts into account? Be able to decide the case regardless of prejudice toward either side? Will the jury both understand the law and be willing to follow the law despite its sympathies? A plea negotiation, on the other hand, makes the outcome predictable. On top of these considerations, the “system” would be overburdened were every criminal case to go to trial, given that the judge, lawyers, and staff must set all their other work aside during the trial and jurors and witnesses must set aside work and family obligations for days at a time to vindicate the rights of a single defendant.
If a case resolves with a plea negotiation, at least some part of the sentencing terms is usually agreed-upon. The parties decided that some length of probation would be appropriate, that the defendant should follow through with a recommendation for treatment as part of probation, or that a certain jail term would be reasonable. The judge has a great deal of discretion to determine unsettled terms, often basing his decision in part upon the recommendations of probation agents.
Jail or prison is not part of every criminal sentence. Success during probation is shown to be more effective at reducing recidivism than a jail consequence. Defendants released from jail without the underlying issue addressed through treatment are more likely to offend in the future. Lower level crimes simply don’t always justify jail time as a consequence. The judge’s decision in a felony sentence must be guided by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, which often require a suspended prison sentence for lower level felonies when the defendant lacks a significant criminal record.
The County Attorney’s Office seeks to preserve and improve public safety through criminal prosecution, protect the vulnerable through civil action, and advise county leadership toward serving the best interests of the people of Cook County. For more information on the County Attorney’s office and court services in Cook County, visit our website at www.co.cook.mn.us or contact us via phone at 218-387-3670.
County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service.
By: Molly Hicken,
Cook County Attorney
Cook County is at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region in the remote northeastern part of the state, stretching from the shores of Lake Superior to the US-Canada border. By land it borders Ontario, Canada to the north, and Lake County, MN to the west. The highest point in Minnesota, Eagle Mountain is 2,301 feet and the highest lake, Total Area equals 3,339.72 sq miles
Cook County is home to three national protected areas:
Grand Portage National Monument
Superior National Forest
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Cook County include:
Grand Marais Lutsen Mountains
Gunflint Trail Superior Hiking Trail
Fire Conditions Minnesota
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