Minnesota House to vote on extra funding for attorney general criminal division, public defenders
Attorney General Keith Ellison says he’s been asking the Legislature for years to give him more funding for the criminal division of his office.
ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are advancing a proposal giving the attorney general’s office more resources to prosecute crime and another bill that would give more funding to state public defenders.
Attorney General Keith Ellison says he’s been asking the Legislature for years to give him more funding for the criminal division of his office, which just four years ago only had one attorney. These days there are just four attorneys who focus on criminal matters, and Ellison said county attorneys from across the state have been asking him to expand the division to aid with prosecuting local criminal cases.
The Senate has already approved a bill Majority Leader Jamie Long said would provide funding for seven more criminal prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office.
The House was poised to vote on the same measure Monday, Feb. 6. The measure, sponsored by Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, would provide $269,000 this year and more than $2 million in 2024 and 2025 for the criminal division.
Ellison said its expected passage and signing into law was a victory not for his office, but for areas of the state that need an extra hand prosecuting major criminal cases.
“It's not a 'yes' to the AG's office. It's a 'yes' to victims. It's a 'yes' to communities. It's a 'yes' to people who are hurting for justice,” Ellison told reporters at a Capitol news conference ahead of the vote.
Ellison noted some higher-profile cases his office assisted with in recent years, including the 2019 murders in Todd County of a former Minnesota Vikings football player and his wife by their son who was apprehended after fleeing to Mexico.
While the attorney general’s office can not take any criminal case it wants, local prosecutors — particularly from rural counties that do not have the same resources as their metropolitan counterparts — can invite the attorney general to take up a case. In many of Minnesota’s 87 counties, the local prosecutor’s office only has a handful of staff.
Much of the attorney general’s role is working to protect Minnesota consumers and representing the state in lawsuits.
That’s happened nearly 50 times since Ellison took office in the beginning of 2019 and most of the cases were outside the Twin Cities Metro. The attorney general handled just two Hennepin County cases: the prosecution of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and of Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter for the shooting death of Daunte Wright.
The attorney general’s role in prosecuting crime was a central theme in the 2022 election, where Ellison faced a challenge from Republican Jim Schultz, who argued Ellison had not used his office enough to combat a wave of violent crime. Minnesota’s attorney general’s office has a little more than 300 staff attorneys, and Schultz suggested shifting resources away from consumer protection and other activities to boost criminal division staffing.
Meanwhile, Ellison has been seeking additional funding to expand the division. Ellison said he is confident from his conversations with the governor, a fellow Democrat, that the bill will be signed into law when it reaches his desk. Gov. Tim Walz supported boosting funding for the office in his budget recommendations.
Ellison expects to have the new criminal division positions staffed in about two months.
Besides the funding boost for the attorney general’s office, the House on Monday night was also taking up a proposal to boost funding for the state public defenders office by around $50 million.
Public defenders across the state nearly went on strike last spring over pay but were able to reach a deal with the Board of Public Defense. Public defenders have long faced massive case loads, with attorneys sometimes handling the work of two or three people, said Rep. Jamie Becker Finn, a Roseville DFLer sponsoring the funding bill.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to legal representation regardless of ability to pay. Becker-Finn said increasing the roughly $100 million public defense budget by around 50% will ensure the state can meet its duty to uphold basic rights.
“If you don't have assistance of counsel and you don't have an adequate assistance of counsel, the outcome should not be dictated based on your access to wealth,” she told reporters. “House File 90 gets us to a place where we’re at least meeting minimum caseload standards. And with the current surplus, we can certainly afford to provide a constitutionally mandated right to our citizens.”
A companion public defender bill has not yet received a vote from the whole Senate.
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