Keena talks about broad role of Dakota County Attorney’s Office


Dakota County Attorney Kathy Keena oversees a staff of 96 including 46 attorneys responsible for prosecuting crimes in the county, as well as providing assistance to victims and witnesses and providing legal counsel to the Dakota County Board of Commissioners and county departments.
The office has broad and sweeping responsibilities. Keena was elected to the position in 2022 when the seat was opened up after three decades, when James Backstrom stepped down from the non-partisan office. Keena has dedicated over 30 years to public service and prosecuted more than 6,000 felony cases prior to taking the department’s top job. She had worked in the county attorney’s office for over 22 years when she was elected, serving as assistant county attorney, head of the criminal division, and chief deputy county attorney, prior to taking the office over on an interim basis when Backstrom retired.
She’s argued before the United State Supreme Court on one end of the spectrum and represented the county on child and adult protection cases and child support enforcement services.
She shared the experiences of her office with the Hastings Rotary Club at its meeting Thursday, April 4, where she was a guest of member and Dakota County Supervisor Mike Slavik.
“We are an office of 96 employees. Including me there are 46 attorneys spread out over four different divisions. In addition to criminal prosecution, and by that, I mean we prosecute all adult felony crimes in Dakota County, we also prosecute any level of crime committed by an adult in the unincorporated areas of the county. We do juvenile delinquency, children in need of protection or services, anything to do with vulnerable adults, including civil commitments, guardianships. We have a child support division, which helps people obtain child support and also establish paternity to fathers, who are married to the mothers who are receiving public assistance. Then we serve as civil legal counsel for the county, so we are providing civil legal advice to the county board and to all our county departments,” she said. “Anytime we get sued or we sue, it’s the county attorney‘s office that is representing the county, so we are a busy office doing a lot of different things.”
The office handles all levels of juvenile cases. She said that in 2023, there were 615 juvenile cases charged, a decrease from 2022. She said juvenile case numbers jumped after COVID.
“When we were coming out of COVID, we went back up to where we are a little bit higher than we were in the past but nothing alarming,” she said.
An interesting juvenile crime statistic was that in 2023, 25 percent were committed from juveniles from other counties.
She said the goal with juveniles is “rehabilitation and prevention and hoping to cut that remote behavior before they become adults.”
If a juvenile is from out of county, their home county is responsible for disposition of the case.
“Conversely, we ran the number of how many of our kids committed a crime out of county and came back here for disposition, and it was about 8 percent,” Keena said. “I found it intriguing that percentage that were coming into the county.”
She said that most law enforcement agencies in the county referring juvenile cases to Dakota County for prosecution saw a decrease last year, except for one.
“If you look at Hastings, they saw an increase in the number of cases referred into our office that we charged. Hastings was the only agency where we saw an increase. All the other agencies saw a decrease in the number of cases that were referred,” said Keena.
In 2023, the office charged 1,829 felony cases, of which 432 were drug cases. Again, while other agencies saw a decrease, Hastings saw an “uptick.”
“It’s not anything alarming,” she said.
Of drug cases, she said the overwhelming majority of them are for methamphetamine.
“Meth is the highest and has been for a number of years,” she said.
Fentanyl is also causing problems in Hastings and elsewhere. She said the most recent statistics from 2022 show 52 overdose deaths in Dakota County, and 39 were from fentanyl.
She said that like on the juvenile side, there are adult crime diversion programs.
“We have a low level property crimes diversion program. It’s for first-time offenders,” she said, ‘If it’s less than $5,000, they can qualify for this program.”
There are also several drug diversion programs.
“The pretrial drug diversion program is for first time, low level drug offenders. Last year we had 35 adults enter that program,” Keena said. “As is the case, unfortunately with people who have a substance use disorder, some relapse, and we see them against come through the court system, so we established a repeat program for those folks. We had 33 adults enter that program last year.”
Dakota County has an adult drug court and the only juvenile drug court in the state. The county also has a veteran’s drug court, with 29 Dakota County veterans who have participated since November 2021. It’s a partnership with Carver County.
“We’ve had 12 graduated thus far. It’s become so successful that we are now partnering with Scott County.
She touched on background on some high profile homicide cases and how they are adjudicated.
Kenna fielded questions on her opinions on other cases. On one current one in the Twin Cities news cycle now, she answered, “I’m glad I’m not prosecuting that case.”