On Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter organizers across the nation bailed out hundreds of mothers who had been held in jail, separated from their children, while awaiting trial on various low-level charges. In addition to benefitting the families directly involved, this action highlighted racial and economic disparities in our judicial system. In Minnesota, activists are also embracing a two-pronged approach of providing immediate practical assistance to people caught in the system, while pushing for structural changes in state and county laws and policies.
A recent ACLU study established that black and Native American people in Minneapolis were 8-9 times more likely to be arrested for alleged low-level offenses than whites. Subsequently, all Minneapolis police officers were required to complete implicit bias training, which is a useful initial step. Hiring more officers who live within the city and who have ties to the communities they serve and protect will also help reduce racial disparities in arrest rates. Groups including the Minneapolis NAACP and the ACLU of Minnesota also tackled the issue by successfully advocating for the repeal of vague and outdated statutes, such as those prohibiting spitting and lurking, which were being disproportionately applied against minorities. Indeed, a key recommendation of the Campaign Zero criminal justice reform organization is to decriminalize or de-prioritize policing enforcement of minor offenses such as marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, bicycling on the sidewalk, and so forth; we would like to see this approach expanded in Minnesota.
Last year, the Star Tribune reported that about half of the bookings into downtown Minneapolis jails were for low-level misdemeanors. Many people were arrested and brought to jail because they had missed a previous court appearance and had a bench warrant issued for them. A quarter of those warrants were issued for failing to appear for minor traffic infractions. If you have a warrant out and you are pulled over for failing to come to a complete stop or failing to signal a lane change, you can be arrested. If you don’t have money to post bail, you could lose your job, and your family would be destabilized. This happens across the country much more often than it should, and it happens in Minnesota too. Simply paying bail is immediately beneficial, as with the coordinated campaign for Mother’s Day by Black Lives Matter or ongoing efforts by local non-profits (including the new MN Freedom Fund). Systemic change is also needed. Hennepin County is now processing and releasing more people who would previously have been jailed, and is investigating reforms to the bail system. We would also like to see judges empowered to waive fines and fees for low-income people, and a state-wide ban on the issuance of arrest warrants for failure to appear for a traffic infraction.
This Saturday is Warrant Forgiveness Day in Hennepin County. The Minneapolis NAACP, the ACLU of Minnesota, and other organizations have been working with Hennepin County through a grant provided by the United Way with the goal of clearing up hundreds of misdemeanor warrants. There are over 11,000 active misdemeanor warrants and we want to help people who have feared arrest at any moment because of missed court dates or inability to pay fines to finally break the chains. We understand that some community members have questioned the validity of this initiative but it’s legit. We have many community members who simply can’t afford to miss a day of work to address their legal matter. We don’t have night courts, which causes many citizens to choose between clearing up a warrant or earning a paycheck. This Saturday, we look forward to assisting those negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. If you know someone who can benefit from this service, have them show up on May 20th from 10am-4pm at the Sabathani Community Center, 310 E. 38th St, Minneapolis to remove their warrants. The goal is to get people back to work and civically engaged.
This is an incredible effort that will tremendously benefit the community and it would not have been possible without the collaboration of several agencies. We at the Minneapolis NAACP are glad to participate and support. Our concern is that without structural change, this is bound to be a beneficial but temporary bandaid. Next year there will be more, and more, and more. We will continuously seek innovative solutions to help those negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.