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Orput maps out big plans despite tight budgets

County Attorney Pete Orput envisions juvenile, veterans' programs for the county's criminal justice system. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker

STILLWATER -- Pete Orput promised himself he would not call for any changes within his first 90 days in office.

He admits he has already broken that promise, but submits that it's a minor change: the newly elected Washington County attorney has encouraged his staff to partake in casual Fridays - provided they're not in trial or meeting with witnesses.

"These people are doing God's work," he said, noting how he regularly sees his prosecutors working on Saturdays without receiving overtime pay. "I wish I could do more for the folks here. I don't have a bag of money."

Orput took the helm at the county attorney's office in January after defeating Kevin Shoeberg in the race to replace Doug Johnson, who retired after 12 years in office.

Orput, an assistant Washington County attorney in the 1990s, now heads the office after working as a prosecutor in Dakota and Hennepin counties, in addition to a stint at the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.

Orput said he hasn't called for a new slate of attorneys and has no plans to reshuffle the deck.

"I said if I'm going to be successful, I don't come in and change things because I can," he said. "I told management I'm not making changes for the sake of change."

Though Orput has been holding back on changes at the office, he's been letting ideas stew. Lots of them.

"I'm interested in anything that will reduce crime," he said inside his office, where a picture of Albert Einstein hangs above his computer monitor and ball caps from different law enforcement agencies line the space.

Ideas abound

Topping his list is what Orput said is a desire for "a meaningful truancy program."

He envisions an expanded version of the peer court program, where juveniles determine consequences for low-level peer offenders - rather than entering the juvenile justice system - pioneered in Woodbury.

"Why can't we do this on a countywide basis?" Orput said. "When they go through this process, we don't see them again. This works."

It's a goal Orput said he wants to accomplish in his first term.

Orput also has his eye on a program he said has shown dramatic results in other parts of the nation: a court that caters to veterans.

Soldiers who return from war zones often have a difficult time readjusting to home life. Orput said too many of those veterans turn to alcohol or substance abuse to self-medicate and make bad decisions that put them in the criminal justice system.

"They're not criminals," Orput, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines, said of offenders in those cases. "We need to help them."

He proposes a "tough love" court where those veterans enter a system where everyone involved - prosecutors, judges, public defenders - are veterans themselves and work toward solutions other than jail.

The program was hatched in Buffalo, N.Y., where Orput said it has turned out a zero-percent recidivism rate. He pointed to several Wisconsin communities already exploring veterans' courts.

Under Orput's plan, such a court would one day be blended with a court for nonviolent drug offenders.

He said the plans present an alternative to the status quo, which he said isn't always effective.

"Right now the only tools I have are jail time or nothing," he said.

The funding question

One tool he doesn't have is additional funding - a reality Orput admits will slow progress toward those goals.

But he's betting that prioritization efforts in the office will offset the problem.

Orput is currently working to even out prosecutors' caseloads with the goal of making generalists of his assistant attorneys. It transitions from a system where prosecutors worked community-specific cases. The problem, Orput said, was that prosecutors representing larger cities carried heavier caseloads than those representing smaller communities.

If all goes according to plan, Orput said the new system will allow prosecutors to "work as a kibbutz" and free up time to work on the long-term programs he proposes.

He also plans to pool resources between law enforcement and other agencies to work cooperatively with prosecutors.

Among those partnerships is a plan to have prosecutors provide training for law enforcement.

He said the goal is twofold: one, for police to have a better understanding of the law that will strengthen investigations. The other side of that coin, Orput said, means prosecutors receiving stronger cases that will lead to more convictions.

Orput said it's all part of the biggest goal - far-fetched as it may seem.

"Ultimately, my goal is to get laid off for lack of work," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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