County attorneys decide who gets charges filed against them and what charges are filed. They set parameters for plea negotiations and make determinations on when to charge juveniles as adults. County attorneys seek cash bail and influence policy on bail. Upon conviction, they determine what kind of sentences to seek. County attorneys can decide to pursue diversion programs as alternatives to criminal conviction. Diversion programs focus on rehabilitation and, in so doing, can reduce the number of people who carry the stigma of a criminal record. Diversion is often considered a worthwhile alternative to criminal charges for juveniles, veterans, people with addiction issues, and other situations where incarceration can be counterproductive.
Second chances are important to Mark Haase. “When I see somebody else unnecessarily held back, it hits me so hard,” he says. Now, he’s looking at an opportunity to expand second chances in his community, and campaigning to become the Hennepin County Attorney.
Mark is a father, veteran, successful attorney, influential policy advocate, foundational part of more than one nonprofit. He’s soft-spoken and earnest, but when he’s passionate about a topic, he leans forward in his chair just a little and ratchets up his volume one notch. He wears a suit like a guy who’d rather not, but he’s comfortable enough in who he is to eschew shyness and shame, and to tell the story of his life directly and candidly.
His story is not without difficulty and not without grace. His mother and father weren’t together long. He passed some time in foster care. His grandparents intervened and saw him returned to his mother’s home, offering their support as needed. Mark’s mother worked long hours in low-wage retail jobs to provide for her family. Around sixth grade, not long after learning he had a different dad than his siblings,
Mark went off course a bit, and, under the guidance of a poor role model, made a few wrong decisions—petty crimes, nothing too serious—common youthful errors.
When opportunities for something different and better came along, Mark righted his ship. After becoming the first in his family to graduate college, Mark was accepted into law school and the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School, both in the same week. He chose the Coast Guard. When his service ended and he came back to Minnesota, he “thought really hard about being a police officer,” but an article in the Star Tribune provided a spark that reignited his interest in the law. Later, he’d learn his birth father was an attorney, and he’d wonder if the legal profession was in his blood. But it was an article about Serena Nunn—a first-time offender who was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for conspiracy to possess and distribute narcotics—that drove him to reapply to law school.
Mark has spent his legal career seeking criminal justice reform, and finding those second chances for others.
He co-founded the Second Chance Coalition, an organization that works to promote fairness in the criminal-justice system and works to ensure that people with criminal histories can find housing, employment, and an education. Mark was a key part of the Second Chance Coalition’s Ban the Box initiative, leading to a change in Minnesota law which makes it more likely that people with criminal records will get through the interview portion of the job application process.
As he considered a run for county attorney, Mark realized his motivation began through a growing understanding of how the system had worked for him in ways it still doesn’t for others.
“It wasn’t until I got older and started learning more about the world that I realized how fortunate I was, in spite of a really tough upbringing.”
There is increasing momentum behind imagining the county attorney role differently.
Many county attorneys argue that their role is limited. They fashion themselves as the proverbial neutral umpires, just calling balls and strikes. Seen in that way, county attorneys charge crimes based on who the police arrest and what the evidence shows—nothing more, nothing else. Those county attorneys might argue that to the extent mass incarceration is an issue in America, to the extent our criminal justice system is biased against people of color, the poor, and people with mental health issues, those problems exist beyond the purview of their office.
Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner, is one of several county attorneys who embrace the role’s potential to transform criminal justice policy. Reforms like refusing to pursue criminal charges against people arrested for possession of marijuana. Not seeking cash bail for defendants accused of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies. Not prosecuting sex workers unless they have an extensive criminal record.
In Philadelphia, Krasner has made other changes. He formed a sentencing review unit, tasked them with reviewing past sentences, and empowered them to seek re-sentencing in cases where previous convictions resulted in unusually harsh punishments. Reform-minded county attorneys seek significantly lower prison terms in plea bargains, and, where many county attorneys are required to seek permission from their boss to depart down from sentencing guidelines, the new model requires prosecutors to seek his approval if they want to pursue harsher sentences.
The county attorney role has the ability to make an immediate impact on defendants and communities. County attorneys can influence criminal justice laws and even shape police department policy.
Through Mark’s ten-plus years of policy advocacy and criminal-justice research, he has come to regard the county attorney role as influential. He enjoyed policy work and admired its capacity to impact lives but acknowledged “working on these issues at the capitol is frustratingly slow.” By contrast, he says, “through the direct discretion and policy influence the Hennepin County Attorney has, a huge number of lives can be positively impacted.” Mark argues that the office holder can “set a tone for how we reimagine justice.” He’s not interested in being a passive umpire.
Running for office is not without sacrifices. Mark is a father of two teenagers, and the campaign has called him away from home a lot. Because he’s an introvert, all the flesh-pressing and glad-handing is more taxing for him than it might be for an extroverted politician. But, Mark says, “all this is worth it, if I can keep a few people from spending more time in jail, or if I can keep a few more young black men from getting that felony.” Speaking of petty crimes, he says, “from day one, I can say ‘no, we’re not going to charge those.’”
Mark is fond of asking ‘Does it work?’ When it comes to the criminal justice system as administered in Hennepin County, he sees room for improvement.
“Overall,” he says “our justice system is creating more harm than its preventing.”
Speaking generally about charging crimes that don’t need to be charged, harsh prison sentences, and legislative and policy approaches that make it more difficult for former offenders to find employment, housing, and the opportunities they’ll need to return to the community as law-abiding citizens, Mark explains it like this: “If we’re holding people back, are we safer? No. We’re more poor. We have more people who feel marginalized. When you have more marginalized communities, research shows you’re more likely to have violent crime.”
He knows the job in Hennepin County will include an effort to help improve police—community relations and build trust between the two. “I have a huge amount of respect for people who go into law enforcement and why they go into it,” he says. “They go into it to help people. I didn’t want to go into it to bust people for five or ten dollars worth of weed or be the enemy. I know the vast majority of individual officers feel that same way, and they don’t like how they’re responded to, particularly in Minneapolis.” Mark continues: “But there’s been some failure of leadership somewhere that’s made things worse for them as well as the community.”
He knows he can make a difference. “The prosecutor has such a unique role in that they’re the lead law enforcement person and absolutely has to work closely with police to deal with crime, but also needs to hold the police accountable and protect the public from police abuses,” he says.
“By helping improve the way we do policing and police community relations, we’re helping the police as well as helping the community. It’s not an either or situation.”
The sum of Mark’s experiences has led him to this run for office.
His difficult early years, the mistakes he made, the second chance he was given, and what he made of it, his work in the Coast Guard, and his policy advocacy—they’ve all led him to this effort. “What I like about what I’ve done the last ten years of policy work and lobbying—I’ve found that I really like being a problem solver,” Mark says, leaning just forward just a bit, speaking a little louder. “I could see myself being a mechanic. It would be really fun. I like to repair things. I really enjoy digging into a problem that people have identified and working with a variety of people to fix it. That’s exactly what I’ve done.” He concludes with a proposal that’s simultaneously abstract and concrete, that’s born of both thinking and feeling:
“Let’s dig in to what this problem really is and how it can be fixed, and work together to create a solution.”