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I am currently the lead judge in Ramsey County’s four treatment courts — Mental Health Court, Veterans Court, DWI Court, and Substance Abuse Court. Offering an alternative to traditional incarceration, blame, and shame, treatment courts take a different approach to public safety by providing caring and support for participants to make major life changes necessary to be law-abiding and fully participating members of our community. We work as a team with the community to provide housing stability, mental health and addiction treatment, and other services in a structured way, working with and, not against, each other.
I sought the assignment because I have long believed in the healing power of treatment courts, having helped establish the first Veterans Treatment Court in Minnesota more than a decade ago and having worked with Drug and DWI courts for more than twenty years. Treatment courts have proven effective in promoting public safety and community. As a judge, it is truly inspiring to preside at treatment court graduations where we recognize the hard work and determination of participants who have completed court requirements. Graduations celebrate accomplishments like long term sobriety, mental health stability, newly acquired degrees, employment and housing stability, new driver licenses, expanded support networks, and renewed relationships with treasured family and friends. Graduations prove the criminal justice system can do better. Once the pandemic has passed, I invite you to come to courtroom 131B to celebrate a graduation with us.
Children and Families
Before my current assignment, I served as the lead judge of the Juvenile and Family Division. While in that role, I focused on keeping children accused of crime out of custody and safely in the community. We have reduced the number of children in pre-trial custody by 45 percent and reduced the average stay by 27 percent. We have also reduced the number of children ultimately sentenced to custody out of home by 85 percent. These are some of the most significant reductions in our country, ultimately leading to closure of Boys Totem Town, an outdated and now unnecessary facility that had been operating for more than 100 years, locking up young males, disproportionately children of color. We also obtained significant new funding for community based responses that will better serve our children, families, communities and public safety and will help to reduce the unacceptable and persistent disparities in our juvenile justice system.
I also chaired the court’s Children’s Justice Initiative, an effort aimed at improving child protection by increasing access to critical mental health, addiction, and parenting education services essential for reunification. We also worked to increase family time visits for children who had been removed from their homes. These visits are crucial to the well-being of children and families dealing with the trauma of removal and to successful reunification.
While lead judge in the Juvenile Family Division, I was also drawn to improve how Indian Child Welfare Act cases were being handled. The United States Congress passed the Act in 1978 in response to staggering rates of child removal from Native American homes as well as intergenerational trauma inflicted in many ways, including boarding schools where native children were deprived of family, tribal, and cultural ties. Despite the promise of the Act, Minnesota still has some of the highest removal disparities in the nation. Working in collaboration with tribes and Ramsey County Officials, we established a specialized Indian Child Welfare Act calendar. The calendar features a rearranged and more respectful courtroom to facilitate more equal communications and to reduce trauma. We also worked with tribes to find innovative ways to protect children while avoiding removal, to improve advocacy, and to educate as to the spirit and intent behind the Act. We are making the Act’s promises more real.
As a judge, I have served on committees to improve justice and community services. For example, I served on a state-wide committee to address short-comings in Minnesota’s pretrial release practices and forms. The question of who gets released from jail before trial and on what conditions is critical. Release can affect whether an accused can stay employed, continue schooling or care for family, will plead or be found guilty, and even the eventual sentence received. It is an area of substantial discretion and also persistent disparity. We have demonstrated, in treatment courts and in juvenile court, that we can dramatically reduce the number of people in custody through common sense measures and partnerships with the community. It is past time to do this for all.
I have also served on committees addressing equal justice, juvenile racial disparities, community based and family centered juvenile services, court-corrections, calendaring and efficiencies, technology, and the executive committee of the district.
The Challenges Ahead
First and foremost, we must redouble our efforts to combat racism and hatred. Shortly, after the George Floyd murder charges were announced, we held veterans treatment court over Zoom. Knowing they were in a healing place, a number of participants spoke of their own past brutalization and trauma at the hands of police, jailers, and others, including while serving their country in the military. Justice requires us to acknowledge and repair past harm while putting a stop to the violence fueled by racism and hatred.
I believe lasting change and true justice can happen. It starts by listening with an open heart and then by taking action, however imperfect. That is how we have kept our children (and they are all our children) out of custody and in our healing community, that is how we continue to operate our treatment courts, and that is how we are reforming pretrial release and bail. Judges are not disinterested umpires who call balls and strikes. Judges must act on behalf of the community by protecting the rights and basic human dignity of everyone who comes before the court.
In addition, the pandemic continues to challenge the courts. In the treatment courts, we continue reaching out to court participants in innovative ways with a message that we care about and will support them in every way we can and that recovery will continue. Our community treatment providers have done an amazing job of adapting and continuing to offer support. Still, the grim reality for our courts as a whole is that many other cases remain on hold, creating a backlog that will take many months, if not years, to address. As the courts return to business, judges must assure both fairness and safety. 2021 and beyond will require experience, patience, and practicality.
Commitment to Community
I am a lifelong St. Paul resident. My father worked at 3M for more than 40 years and my mother worked as an occupational therapist at the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Paul and later as an early childhood teacher in the South Washington County Schools. I attended Battle Creek Elementary and Junior High Schools and Harding High School. I graduated from Saint Thomas Academy High School and Hamline University. I received my law degree from the University of Minnesota.
I have been married to Beth Peterson for 36 years. We have two grown sons. I have been a member of the St. Paul YWCA and its masters swim team. Beth and I have contributed time and money to the YWCA’s mission of empowering women and eliminating racism. I am a devoted bicycle commuter, and have served as a youth counselor at Camp Unistar, a Unitarian Universalist camp on Star Island in Cass Lake. I take great joy in the wide diversity of people, food, music, and celebration in our community. I have missed them greatly during these challenging times.
Before becoming a judge I was in public service, private practice, and teaching.
I was a key player in many innovative and progressive measures:
- Domestic Abuse Service Center. A first of its kind one-stop center for victims of domestic violence. The center brought together community providers, law enforcement, city and county prosecutors, and the court in a welcoming multicultural environment. The Domestic Abuse Service Center has served as a model for other similar centers throughout the country.
- Community based restorative justice programs for juvenile offenders. We recruited and funded restorative justice training for community groups so that juvenile offenders could avoid the stigma of conviction while restoring harm inflicted.
- Adult pre-charge diversion. Set up a program so offenders could avoid criminal charges altogether by accepting responsibility and making restitution to the victim, preserving employment, housing, and educational opportunity.
- Veterans Treatment Court. I worked on establishing the first veterans’ treatment court in Minnesota that continues serving veterans to this day.
- Innocence Project Collaboration. Obtained a federal grant to work in collaboration with the Innocence Project of Minnesota to systematically review past felony convictions throughout Minnesota where evidence might still be available and analyzed with newer and more advanced DNA testing.
- Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Worked with community members and justice partners to put in place alternatives to keeping children in custody and to reduce racial disparities.
- Drug law reform. Worked to reform drug laws and court practices to significantly reduce sentences and to divert from prosecution and support people needing addiction treatment.
- Voting Rights. Advocated state-wide for restoring voting rights to all felons who are out of custody. Also advocated against unnecessary voter identification requirements and other voter suppression methods.
Before working in the public sector, I held a teaching fellowship at the University of Chicago Law School where I taught legal research and writing at one of the nation’s top five law schools.
I was in private practice in the St. Paul branch of the law firm of Oppenhiemer, Wolf and Donnelly (now Fox Rothschild) where I specialized in appellate, transportation, and other civil litigation. During this time, I also volunteered to assist the office of the Ramsey County Public Defender at misdemeanor first appearance hearings.
My first law job was as a law clerk to the Honorable Gerald W. Heaney, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In that job, I assisted in a wide variety of cases ranging from the St. Louis and Kansas City school desegregation and other civil rights appeals to expanding bankruptcy protection for farmers in crisis.
I attended the University of Minnesota School of Law where I was an editor of the law review, magna cum laude graduate, and Order of the Coif.