Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A professor encouraged Saraswati Singh to drop out of law school at the University of Minnesota. Instead, Singh stuck it out and now prosecutes violent criminals in Ramsey County. 

Singh, 37, has worked for four years as an assistant Ramsey County attorney, focusing on murder, domestic assault, and sexual assault cases. She previously worked for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

Singh’s experience spans financial fraud to domestic violence. She said shes running for Hennepin County attorney because she wants to hold police officers accountable. It’s a role she’s wanted since the start of her legal career.

“Oftentimes, age is a proxy for experience. That’s not true with me. I have all this experience that other candidates don’t have,” Singh told Sahan Journal. “I’m the same age as Amy Klobuchar when she first ran and won for Hennepin County attorney. She was the first woman in that elected position, and I’m going to be the first woman of color.”

Singh will prioritize public safety, police accountability, and racial equity if elected. She plans to reassign prosecutors from the drug unit to violent crime cases, and wants to diversify the staff.

Sahan Journal recently spoke with Singh about her campaign. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What should people, especially immigrants and people of color, know about the Hennepin County attorney and how the role impacts them? What about young people going through either the juvenile justice process or child protection cases?

I will be hiring people that are from all parts of Hennepin County–people that are of all races, sexuality, ability, class. I didn’t know that there were so many people of color that were victims of crime. I didn’t know there were so many immigrants that were victims of crime. A lot of people probably wouldn’t know this, but so many of the victims in my case are immigrants, and they’re scared. 

I would tell immigrants to say if they need help, call 911. And if they’re worried that someone won’t speak English or the officers that arrive don’t speak English, we now have interpreter services, so that when they arrive officers can use their phones and have a translator translate. This is part of the reason why having police accountability is so important. We want people to feel comfortable calling the police. 

I had a case where the victim was an Iraqi refugee and he only spoke Arabic. We had the whole trial translated for him. So those are things that we can do for immigrant communities. Just because you don’t speak English–just because you have an accent–doesn’t mean you don’t get to have justice. 

In terms of the young people, I would say if you’re upset by the system, go to law school and then come join my office. I’ll need good people. The legal community isn’t very good. There are plenty of attorneys out there of the old type of mindset of, “Let’s charge people with the most number of crimes and the most serious number of crimes,” rather than looking at the equities of the case. 

How do you plan to address racial equity issues in prosecution?

I’d move folks over from the drug unit over to the violent crime unit. In the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, do you know the number one type of case they still prosecute? It’s drugs. And where do we have some of the greatest disparities in the criminal justice system? Drugs. It’s mostly low-level drug possession cases.

And when you go into a courtroom in Hennepin County—this is true in many counties—you’ll see mostly BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] people who are charged with drug crime, even though people that identify as white use drugs at a slightly higher rate than people that are Black. 

We need to focus on police accountability. When law enforcement abuse their power, it hurts the whole system. We need to do a lot of work of checking the backgrounds of officers in the Minneapolis Police Department and doing whatever the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office can to make sure that when we see those abuses, we respond to them immediately.

I’ve seen it in my work and I’ve learned from it: just because you identify them, it’s not enough. You need someone at the top to actually hold the police department accountable and take action. Otherwise, things don’t change.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, do you plan to prosecute abortion cases in Hennepin County?

No. I would keep proceeding as if Roe v. Wade was not overturned. I’m pro-choice. I’ve also handled sexual assault cases. This is not a surprise, but sometimes when people are sexually assaulted, they get pregnant. I’m not going to prosecute a child or an adult for getting an abortion.

We already have plenty of work to do. We have to address the murders and the carjacking and the sexual assaults. Those are really important to me. I don’t need to charge all these women.

How do you plan to address rising violent crime while also implementing criminal justice reform measures, since a lot of people think of it as one or the other?

People often think that you have to choose between public safety and restorative justice, and that’s not the case. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office handles a wide range of cases, everything from murders and sexual assault all the way down to domestic assault, to DWI’s to low-level property crime cases, low-level drug possession. Not every case needs a hammer. 

The murder cases—obviously that’s a threat to public safety. Sexual assault—obviously that’s a threat to public safety. Drive by shootings or carjackings—those are really serious. But the portion of those cases in the criminal justice system is very small. They don’t feel that way because they’re all over the news and people get really scared from them, rightfully so. 

In those low-level cases, I want to double the size of treatment courts. We have treatment courts called DWI court, drug court, mental health court, that focus on those core issues, and it requires defendants to do a lot more work. We require them to go to court every week rather than once a month. It requires them to do all these holistic things–inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment–to address the core issue.

We get a better result in the criminal justice system and they are still held accountable. They may not have to do additional jail time, for example. It’s important to have alternatives available and lean into them for folks that deserve it and are willing to put in the work. They have a pretty good success rate.

What roles should the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office play in reviewing and prosecuting officer-involved killings?

It should play an important role–that’s part of our job. You have to review them to see whether they committed a crime. I’m also comfortable working with other county attorneys and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office on those cases.

But the responsibility lies with me. If, for example, there’s a conflict of interest, those are things that I will take into account, too, in deciding whether my office is going to prosecute everything or work with another county. 

A lot of people think it’s just the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office that worked the Chauvin case. No, it was prosecutors from both offices. I think that made sense for [Hennepin County Attorney] Mike Freeman, because people didn’t trust him to do the right thing.

That’s another reason why it’s important to have a new Hennepin County attorney. They tend to stay there for many years. Freeman was there for over 20 years, and that’s common. But it’s time for someone new.

How will you vet police testimony and evidence in cases presented by Minneapolis police in light of the Jaleel Stallings case?

As prosecutors we see a lot of the evidence, and we review it, right? It’s not just police reports. There’s body cam, squad footage–we pull recordings from businesses that have security cameras.

First, you have to hire good prosecutors. And then you also have to create a culture where you let your office know that this is the standard that you have. And letting them know that when you pass the bar exam, that’s not enough to get the profession. You have to pass a professional responsibilities test, additional background checks, and questioning regarding your character. Those things are important when you’re in this profession. 

As a prosecutor, your one job is to do justice. That is how I’m going to approach handling those types of cases, and what I would expect from the prosecutors that work in my office.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...