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County attorney candidates face citizen questions

BEMIDJI -- Curious voters filled Bemidji City Hall to hear Beltrami County Attorney candidates respond to questions at a public forum Tuesday hosted by the Citizens for an Informed Electorate Committee.

After 25 years in office, Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver is not seeking re-election. Assistant County Attorney Annie Claesson-Huseby and private attorneys Darrell Carter and David L. Hanson are competing for the position. The three are squaring off in the Aug. 12 Primary Election, which will pare the candidates to two for the Nov. 4 General Election.

Candidates responded to 17 questions with 1.5 minute answers between three-minute opening and closing statements. During Claesson-Huseby’s opening statement, she mentioned she fights on the right side of justice every day, which turned up in the Q&A session.

The question posed was whether or not there is a right side of justice. Carter and Hanson said there is no right or wrong side of justice, while Claesson-Huseby defended her statement saying a prosecutor holds a sword to fight for truth and a shield to protect victims.


Advice to sheriff’s office

Perhaps one of the more controversial questions submitted involved a recent high speed chase through Bemidji that ended in a suicide. The question was: What advice would you give to the sheriff’s department upon hearing of the recent 30-mile high-speed chase at speeds over 100  mph through our community at 2 p.m. on a Monday in the apprehension of a misdemeanor driving offender who committed suicide upon his arrest?

“Law enforcement has one of the toughest jobs out there, you have to go through some split-second decisions, life and death decisions and they have to do so on a regular basis,” Hanson said. “I don’t feel that was handled inappropriately.”

“I think a young man ended up dead that shouldn’t be,” Carter said. “The chase should have ended as soon as a citizen’s life was put in danger. I think a day or two later, they would have apprehended him probably at his home because they knew where he lived, they knew who he was.”

“One of the most dangerous crimes we have in Beltrami County is flight and fleeing in a motor vehicle,” Claesson-Huseby said. “Fleeing in a motor vehicle is probably one of the things that endangers the most amount of people in one single incident.” She explained the sentencing guidelines for fleeing in a motor vehicle is ranked at the lowest level on sentencing guidelines, which are determined by legislation in St. Paul.

Jail concerns

Inquiries about the Beltrami County jail included the statistical overrepresentation of Native Americans in the inmate population, as well as how to handle mentally ill people who are incarcerated rather than placed in treatment facilities. Candidates agreed that poverty is a factor in why Native Americans comprise a higher percentage of the jail population. Hanson said a lack of educational opportunities on reservations are a contributing factor. Carter said he used to represent Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe members and recognizes their plight and that bail needs to be fair and equitable. Claesson-Huseby said there is no easy answer, but specialty courts such as the DWI court in Beltrami County are one way to address the situation.

Claesson-Huseby said the criminal justice system and mental health meet at an intersection in which adults cannot be forced to get help, but courts can intervene. Hanson agreed that the issues intersect, but added it is a legislative issue regarding funding for treatment options. Carter said often a mental illness is not recognized until it is too late, during sentencing and a pre-screening system needs to be in place. Carter also said as a defense attorney it is difficult to get prosecutors to recognize people should be treated differently.

Prosecuting crimes

A question on which crimes are under- and over-prosecuted was posed. Carter and Hanson agreed thefts are under prosecuted. Carter stated that shoplifting should have a mandatory jail sentence. Hanson said Beltrami County has the fourth-highest crime rate in Minnesota and if punishments for thefts and burglaries don’t fit the crimes, the behaviors won’t stop. Claesson-Huseby said the Beltrami County Attorney’s office sees 3,000 cases a year, so she does not feel there are under prosecutions.

Carter said domestic violence incidents tend to be over prosecuted, some of which could be classified as disorderly conduct. Claesson-Huseby disputed that claim, stating she will continue to prosecute domestic abuse cases strongly because it could mean the difference between life and death. She added Beltrami County has implemented a specialty domestic violence court.

Crime prevention

Questions involving the county attorney’s role in reducing crime and how it might handle an increased caseload received similar responses from each candidate. Reduction in crime cannot be done by the county attorney’s office alone, Claesson-Huseby and Hanson said. Claesson-Huseby and Carter recognized specialty courts as a way to bring the crime rate down. Hanson said with a lower crime rate, there will be a lower caseload.

When asked what the role of the county attorney’s office is in the community, Claesson-Huseby said transparency is important, as well as communication with citizens and being approachable. Carter said communication is most effective when citizens feel law enforcement is responding quickly and Hanson said it is a combination of both, maintaining an open line of communication and going into the community, to public meetings and reaching out to tribes to find out what needs to be worked on.

CIE members John Parsons and Maggie Montgomery moderated the event before a live audience at Bemidji City Hall. The group will be hosting additional forums throughout the election season.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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