New adjunct professor comes full circle at SMSU

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Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Dede Williams, Staff Writer

Walk into Southwest Minnesota State University’s (SMSU) Charter Hall 206 on Monday evenings and you will find a packed classroom being taught Legal Environment and Contract Law by an unassuming professor.  Adjunct professor Keith Helgeson has begun his first semester back at Southwest Minnesota State University; however, he is teaching this time.  Helgeson is an alumnus of SMSU and a native of southwest Minnesota.  By day, he is Chief Prosecuting Attorney in the neighboring county of Yellow Medicine (YMC).

For 27 years he has been an integral part of the County Attorney’s office of Granite Falls, Minnesota.  He began as the Assistant County Attorney in 1993 and transferred to the County Attorney position in 2006.  His current position has broadened the scope of his job description, but he still prosecutes crimes that occur against the county and its citizens.

The crimes he prosecutes include those perpetrated by juveniles.  Over the years he has become witness to incidents of high recidivism rates and has found himself having to prosecute 2nd and even 3rd generations of families.  While carrying on the daily business of running the County Office, his conscience began to and continued to beg the question, “How can you break this cycle?”

Enter Amanda Sieling, the Assistant Attorney in the office at the time.  Many on the SMSU campus know Sieling as Assistant Professor Sieling in the Justice Administration Department.  Helgeson teamed up with her to implement restorative justice practices as part of their criminal justice system in YMC.  I reached out to Sieling for some insight about the restorative justice model and she shared this: “In order to have real justice, we need to think of all the people affected [by crime]; the victim, community, and the offender.  We need to wrap the offender into the community instead of shunning them out, or just locking them up.  Seventy percent or so recidivate within three years of their release.  That’s why we need to come at crime in a different way.  We need to treat the whole community.  Restorative justice is one of the best ways I know to do that.”

An important piece of the restorative justice concept that Helgeson and Sieling have implemented in YMC is called “circle.”  The central piece is the coming together of volunteers of the community to meet with offenders in the community in just that, a circle.  They sit and share with each other in a “talking circle.”  The one whose turn it is to speak is given a “talking piece” and they share what they need to— “from the heart.”  Offenders and interested members of the community who want to help restore balance and healing in their communities by helping each other find their ways, together. There has been an outpouring in their community of volunteers to help adolescents in the criminal justice system and adults alike.

Another circle program derived from the restorative justice ideals helps parents who have found themselves in the court systems because they have a Child in Need of Protection or Services, or CHIPS case.  Parents can attend circle to share their issues and volunteers can offer assistance to help create a network of support as the parents work on themselves.

Another extremely important option is available to victims of crime. If the victim so chooses, they can meet with their offender on their terms and create a dialogue that can be of a healing nature for them.  It can be beneficial for the offender to see and hear the full impact of the consequences of their actions. This will hopefully modify their thought processes and therefore future behaviors.

While Helgeson cannot volunteer himself because of the “conflict of interest”, he did inform me that what they’ve implemented in their county has now spread throughout the state of Minnesota, including Redwood and Lyon county. Anyone in the community can volunteer. Examples of volunteers in the past have been teachers, parents in the community, and retired law enforcement officers.

When Helgeson graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul MN with a law degree, he wanted to practice corporate law until a serendipitous clerking position for Judge Christopherson in Montevideo inspired him to go into public law, “for a couple of years.” Twenty-seven years later, he is still invested in his work in the Office of County Attorney.

Helgeson has now found himself back in the classrooms of SMSU. He says he enjoys it, but “it’s hard to witness all that students have to juggle these days in academia. In addition to all the time needed to attend class and the time needed to study, they also need to have close to a full-time job to make ends meet. It wasn’t like that when I was in college.”

He also enjoys “watching the light bulbs light up. There is so much legal language that can be boring and hard to get through. But when they see that it can apply to their daily lives, they engage and that’s exciting.”

What’s next for Helgeson? He would like to continue to teach Business Law and, if the opportunity arises, perhaps other classes. Helgeson has come full circle, back to where he had left his roots to explore what the world had to offer and has brought it home to reinvest.

You must wonder, what if by chance he had walked a different path?  What if he hadn’t crossed paths with Amanda Sieling? A great mind compelled and working in tandem with another to choose the path not yet traveled by implementing restorative justice into their criminal justice system. That, it would appear, is how you break the cycle. It can be a reassuring message that we have innovating minds like those of Helgeson and Sieling here on campus, imparting knowledge and experience to students who are just as eager to innovate.

For information on becoming a volunteer in Circle Programs here in Lyon County

Contact Megan Boerboom

Circle Coordinator

507-532-4121

[email protected]