On Tuesday, Hennepin County voters will make a decision in a hotly-contested race for County Attorney, the chief prosecutor in the most populous county in the state.
The incumbent is Mike Freeman, 70, who has held the office for 19 years in two nonconsecutive terms, taking a break in the late 90s to early 2000s to run for governor, an office his father held in the late 1950s. Prior to that, Freeman served in the Minnesota Senate, and worked as a trial lawyer.
Also on the ballot is Mark Haase, 50, who co-founded the bipartisan Minnesota Second Chance Coalition. Haase has worked on criminal justice reform on issues like drug sentencing, juvenile records, expungement, and the Ban the Box campaign. He plans to create a community advisory board to work on issues surrounding police accountability in the prosecution process, collecting and analyzing data on demographics and race to improve equity, limiting cash bail to cases involving public safety risks, and strengthening restorative justice programs.
Haase describes this moment as a “crisis point” to drastically change policies to drive better outcomes, looking at justice holistically, rather than just being tough and aggressive in court.
Haase is right. This is a moment when public safety and justice are being reimagined, a moment when law-and-order top-down leadership must give way to outcome-oriented collaboration, and a moment when mass incarceration is being recognized as an ineffective and unjust first-line treatment.
But in this moment, Freeman has proven himself disconnected.
Take for instance a debate between the candidates in early October. Asked to introduce themselves and define what justice means before a diverse Northside audience, Haase described getting into trouble as a young adult and having the people and resources to get his life back on track—but he questioned if he would have the same experience today if he were less fortunate or a person of color. Haase said justice is broader than just prosecutions—that prosecutors shouldn’t just take every case that comes in and strive to win with the highest penalties available, but that the office of County Attorney should instead seek a broader path to helping community members in the long term, like tailoring sentences to the individual and helping them move on with a hopefully better life.
Freeman, on the other hand, gave an answer better suited for a room of law firm partners: that he manages 400 employees and a $55 million budget, does all the legal work of a $2 billion business (the County), and has a demanding job. He spoke of being the party whip when he served in the Minnesota Senate, and said the scariest thing he’s ever done was argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1990s.
Despite the debate moderator asking twice, Freeman never got around to defining what justice means. He has before, though: “Justice means being aggressive and tough on the crooks, thugs, and gangsters that violate our children, our families, and our neighborhoods,” Freeman said in a 2006 campaign speech.
Freeman’s tough-on-crime brand has—for his entire career—been a highway he hasn’t detoured far from. While serving in the state senate in the 1980s, Freeman was the chief author of a bill to increase law enforcement’s authority to seize assets in drug cases, which he described as a revenue-raising measure for police, and he sponsored a bill that would have sent some criminal defendants to state prisons before a pre-sentence investigation had been completed in order to free up county jail space for even more defendants. In his first campaign for Hennepin County Attorney, he promised to create a “drug-gang unit” and “career criminal program,” and when he ran for reelection in 1994, he said, “What I am running on are two main issues: aggressive prosecution of people breaking the law and crime prevention.”
He certainly had ideas on crime prevention, but those ideas looked more like gun buy-back events than early intervention to stop the school-to-prison pipeline.
After his attempt at the Governor’s Mansion, Freeman’s messaging in his 2006 campaign hadn’t changed. “Our first duty is to aggressively prosecute felons,” said Freeman in a letter to voters that year, discussing a need for “vigorous prosecutions of criminals.” This continued to be his messaging in 2010, 2014, and even earlier this year.
But now, Freeman is running on a platform of bail reform, advocacy for immigrants, implicit bias training, alternatives to incarceration, and reducing disparities. These were not his beliefs—and certainly not his policies—at any prior point in his career. In March, Freeman’s campaign website made no mention of these priorities. A few months later, it did.
What happened in those intervening months? For the first time in 12 years, Freeman had an opponent. In the face of Haase promising to reform Freeman’s ineffective and inequitable policies, it was time for Freeman to rebrand. Out with the ‘tough-on-crime’ prosecutor, in with whatever the other guy’s doing.
Freeman has pirated the most popular aspects of Haase’s platform, either suggesting his office has been doing those things all along, or saying he will do those things in the future. Those policies Freeman hasn’t copied, he’s softened his language and committed to “studying” the issues.
After Haase pointed out that expungements can serve the interests of justice in helping individuals move on with their life in seeking work and housing, it was suddenly Freeman’s priority too. “I am proud that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is implementing a policy to offer ‘automatic’ expungements,” Freeman said. There’s no evidence this policy exists beyond Freeman claiming so in campaign materials. I asked for a copy of any relevant policy documents, and didn’t hear back. And the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office website offers the following advice to defendants seeking expungement: go to the self-help center.
Not only has Freeman proven himself adept at claiming success where there is none, Freeman is quite capable at turning his prosecutorial strategy on a dime when it serves his political interests. Earlier this year, public defenders sounded the alarm after discovering that 46 out of 47 people being charged by Freeman’s office in low-level marijuana sales arrests were black. Contrary to 2014 Freeman, who said that marijuana (not marijuana prosecutions, mind you) has “ruined lives” and must be responded to aggressively; contrary to 2016 Freeman, who claimed marijuana was “bad news bears,” 2018 Freeman has an opponent in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and expanding diversion programs, so he suddenly announced he would no longer charge these cases, incredibly, suggesting that others “follow [his] lead.” There was no lead. This is not what leading looks like.
This summer, the Star Tribune ran a multi-part series—“When rape is reported and nothing happens”—analyzing failures in law enforcement and prosecutors to perform the most basic investigative steps in sexual assault cases, resulting in only a small percentage of cases being prosecuted. Cases handled by Freeman’s office were specifically highlighted among the failures. Freeman announced a series of drastic changes, but his reaction to this story is worth quoting in full here: “OMG. Oh my God. I didn’t think the numbers were this bad, and I didn’t think there were that number of cases that the victim was never talked to, or almost no investigation was done. I really honestly thought more was done.”
Freeman isn’t just disconnected from community demands for a broader vision of public safety—his shock at the conduct of his own office demonstrates a disconnection with the work he supervises.
Data could help here, and analyzing the mountains of data in the County Attorney’s office to guide decision-making and ensure equity in prosecution could avoid situations like discovering nearly 100% of defendants of a certain type of enforcement action are black. After Haase made an argument in favor of using data to promote accountability and transparency, Freeman claimed to be working on a “dashboard” to do exactly that. It’s nowhere to be found on the County Attorney’s office website. “We hope to have this available soon,” Freeman’s campaign material says.
Accountability, transparency, and collaboration are important factors in how the County Attorney runs their office, and Haase’s commitment to an idea of a community advisory board demonstrates that he values scrutiny and input from others. Freeman says he values community input, though with unjust prosecutions being discovered far too late, and systematic failures being discovered only by painstaking external research by reporters, I’m not convinced.
In recent years, Freeman has faced a challenge in deciding whether to charge officers following fatal police shootings. Of course, the facts are the facts and the law is the law, and sometimes prosecutors have little choice but to decline charges. Freeman made a good decision in removing some secrecy from the process by forgoing the grand jury process. But in the late 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark, Freeman gave a press conference that seemed to vilify the deceased more than it provided the requisite transparency. As of late, Freeman has avoided press conferences when he’s feared the optics of questions or interruptions by community members. “He’s not going to come down here with them around,” I heard Freeman’s media coordinator say, before asking members of the media to move to a secure area away from the public. That’s not the conduct of a public servant.
I also have my own personal experiences with Freeman’s office. In 2016, I filed a lawsuit after being denied access to data about how law enforcement uses biometric technologies, like facial recognition. Instead of Freeman’s office working collaboratively to produce the records, they saw it as an opportunity to weaken the state’s freedom of information law, making ridiculous arguments about how difficult it is to search email. Freeman lost at the trial court. Freeman lost at the Court of Appeals. And Freeman lost at the Minnesota Supreme Court. After an order compelling their compliance with the law was upheld, and a couple hundred thousand of attorney’s fees expended, Freeman filed a demand with the Court, asking me to pay their court costs—over $1,500. Freeman’s division chief admitted in court that if they didn’t get succeed at creating holes in the law in my case, they would do so on the next one.
A 1991 quote from the Star Tribune’s C.J. is perhaps the best summary of Mike Freeman you need: “Freeman’s state Cap[itol] friends have long joked that his deepest political aspirations transcend the governor’s mansion—he’d like to be emperor.” We don’t need any more emperors in government, especially in positions that impact the lives of thousands of residents of Hennepin County on a daily basis.
Mark Haase has good ideas and a track record of executing them, an authentic passion to improve and collaborate with people from all faiths, races, and backgrounds, the backing of an impressive list of endorsers. Hennepin County voters shouldn’t squander this opportunity to redefine justice and improve safety for all.