Prosecution and defense team up to help Hennepin County community

December 14, 2018 10:22 PM

An unexpected collaboration is working to improve lives and community safety in Hennepin County. 

A program called Restorative Court takes a new approach to handling low-level crimes.  The aim is to cut down on the number of arrests and people charged with misdemeanors.


Usually, you see the prosecution and the defense on opposite sides of the court, working against each other. But when the two sides decided to work together, they found they could create real change, and even save Hennepin County some money.

Mary Ellen Heng is the Minneapolis deputy city attorney in the criminal division. 

"The people we are focusing on are the people out there who are committing these low-level, nonviolent offenses due to underlying issues. They have mental health issues or addiction issues or they are homeless," she said.

"The reality is sure, we could put them in jail and have them serve up to 90 days. But they are still going to have their mental health issues, or addiction or still be homeless."  

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In her years as a prosecutor she kept seeing the same people come through and realized they needed a new approach. 

"What we were doing wasn't working," she said. "Why not try something different?"

So she reached out to someone else who has spent years on the other side of the courtroom, First Assistant Public Defender Jeanette Boerner.  Her job is to help people accused of a crime stay out of jail. 

But she'd rather help them stay out of the system all together. 

"Our mutual goal is to make sure they don't come back and they don't re-offend.  And they are welcomed back into the community where they belong," she said.

Restorative Court pairs low-level offenders with social workers right away. It's a voluntary program. 

The women behind it say they are not spending any more money. They are using resources already available, and they say the program can save the county money. 

They will work with people accused of low level misdemeanors in Minneapolis. The Restorative Court will officially start Feb. 1.

Heng says this approach can help her focus more time and effort on serious crimes.

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Leah McLean

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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