New to the Bench: Hon. Lois Conroy
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
by: Joy R. Anderson
Hon. Lois Conroy
Ms. Anderson is an associate at Gray Plant Mooty in the Business & General Litigation Group. Her litigation practice covers a wide variety of subject matters, including trademarks, financial services, and trusts and estates.
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1997 J.D., University of Minnesota Law School, cum laude
1994 B.A., honors and distinction, University of Minnesota Morris
1993 Georgetown University, Engelchiff Scholor, 1993
1995-2012 Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, attorney II &
clerk (civil & criminal litigation)
1999-2001, 2007-2009 Hennepin County Attorney’s Office,
cross-deputized felony prosecutor
1999-2000 University of Minnesota Law School, adjunct professor
1996-1998 I.C. System, attorney & clerk (mergers/acquisitions
& employment law)
After spending years as a prosecutor in Minneapolis, Judge Lois Conroy knew that a city couldn’t arrest or prosecute its way out of a crime problem.
That’s the premise of the Downtown 100 Initiative, a community crime watch program Conroy helped create as the Minneapolis downtown community prosecutor. The program tracks frequent offenders and tries to address the root causes of their criminal acts, by helping them with mental health, addiction, and other issues.
“What we want is for offenders to do better. We want there to be positive ways they can contribute to the community,” said Conroy.
That’s the same philosophy Conroy will bring to the bench when she becomes a Hennepin County District Court judge in January.
“I want an opportunity to change people’s lives, and I will have that as a judge,” said Conroy. “As a prosecutor for the last decade and a half, I’ve had an opportunity to see how important a judge’s work is and how much of an effect it can have.”
In November 2012, Conroy was elected as a Hennepin County judge. Conroy, who will take office in January, lives in south Minneapolis, and has been a prosecutor for Minneapolis and Hennepin County for the last 14 years.
Conroy’s childhood was spent on a farm near Canby, a southwestern Minnesota town of 1,800 people. Her family raised cattle and hogs and grew small grains, corn, and soybeans. “I grew up on one of the last small family farms,” said Conroy. When she was growing up, there were always some chores to do, caring for the animals or working in the fields. “I can tell you prosecution is much easier than feeding livestock, picking rocks or pulling weeds,” she said with a laugh. Her parents also owned an auction business, and her first job—at age 12—was to help out at the sales.
Conroy was the first person in her family to attend college. She chose a campus not too far from home—the University of Minnesota, Morris—but by her senior year, she was attending a program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and considering the law schools on the East Coast. A good friend, Martin, suggested that she come back to Minnesota, to her friends and family, telling her it was a great place to practice law, with a top-tier law school of its own. She listened to this advice, attended the University of Minnesota Law School, graduated cum laude, and married Martin, now her husband of 17 years.
While she was still a law student, Conroy began working as an intern in the civil division of the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office. When she graduated in 1997, however, the City of Minneapolis had instituted a hiring freeze, so there was no possibility of being hired full-time by the office. Instead, she took a job in St. Paul with IC System, Inc., a debt collection agency, where she practiced employment law and worked on mergers and acquisitions.
The following year, her mentor at the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office became the head of the office’s criminal division and offered Conroy a position. Conroy thought she would take the job, get some trial experience, and then return to civil practice in six months or a year. Instead, she spent the next 14 years as a prosecutor, handling more than 1,000 cases for Minneapolis and Hennepin County in a variety of areas.
Over her years with the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, she has practiced in the areas of domestic abuse, animal abuse, and gun crimes. She has been part of the office’s first chronic offender team (which she helped establish), as well as the general trial team, where she took part in dozens of trials. Twice, Conroy was given a leave of absence to work for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, where she prosecuted domestic abuse cases, drug crimes, and criminal sexual conduct cases.
In 2004, she began working in the position that became her favorite when she became the community prosecutor for the first precinct, which covers downtown Minneapolis. The community prosecution program is intended to get members of the community actively engaged in reducing crime, in the belief that community efforts will more effectively address crime than arrests and prosecutions alone, Conroy explained.
“I have found that to be absolutely true,” said Conroy.
As part of that effort, in 2008, Conroy helped create and lead Downtown Court Watch. The community crime watch program for the downtown area involves business owners, residents, and community members in creating strategies to deal with some of the downtown’s most frequent offenders in an attempt to decrease “livability” offenses, like drug crimes, theft, trespassing, and disorderly conduct.
Two years later, Conroy was also instrumental in launching and leading the Downtown 100 Initiative, an outgrowth of the Court Watch program intended to focus on the city’s 50 most frequent offenders (originally, the program was intended to target the top 100 offenders, but members decided to narrow the focus). Instead of just arresting, prosecuting, and releasing defendants back to the street to reoffend, the Downtown 100 Initiative seeks to address the issues that contribute to the offenders’ criminal behavior.
Many of the repeat offenders have no place to live, drug or alcohol addictions, mental health issues, or even untreated traumatic brain injuries, according to Conroy.
“The court system has very limited resources to deal with those sorts of problems,” said Conroy.
In such cases, the Downtown 100 partners attempt to intervene with housing options, drug treatment, and mental health evaluations, in addition to tracking by a probation officer dedicated to downtown and, sometimes, obtaining orders restricting an offender from certain geographic areas. In its first year, the program saw a 74 percent decline in the number of crimes committed by the 50 tracked offenders, and it has won national and international awards as a standard for community policing.
Conroy is proud of what the program has accomplished—both in increasing livability downtown and in assisting offenders to take control of their lives. “To get housed, get sober, start attending college—those things are life changing,” said Conroy.
Although she loved working at the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, Conroy said that she felt she had more to give. She had thought about becoming a judge before, and after nudges from several of her colleagues who suggested that she would be a good candidate, she decided to run when two positions opened on the Hennepin County bench.
During her campaign, Conroy met as many people as she could, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and got to hear their thoughts about the court system.
“We know so much about the other three branches of government, but people know so little about how the justice system works,” said Conroy. “I was surprised to hear there were many people who had never met a judge.”
Still, the people Conroy met knew what they wanted in a judicial candidate. “They wanted someone to be fair, to be balanced, and they want to be listened to, to know their arguments were fully considered,” said Conroy. People supported her candidacy because they could see her commitments to public service, innovation, and working with the community, she said.
Her supporters included people of a wide range of political and philosophical beliefs. Many of her campaign workers were her neighbors from her closely-knit south Minneapolis neighborhood, and many of them had never worked on any kind of campaign before, she said. “To have all these people support me because they believed in the work that I did—it felt like the exact way we should elect people,” said Conroy.
Conroy left the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office at the end of November, giving her a month of downtime between her old job and her new position. She has important plans before taking the bench—she intends to pick up her children from school every day. “We have a whole lot of things to do, play legos, go rock climbing,” says Conroy.