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Court officers say Minnesota still struggles for equal justice

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Updated: Friday, Feb. 8 | Posted: Thursday, Feb. 7

Judges, county attorneys and other legal professionals say Minnesota's criminal justice system still fails people of color 25 years after the state Supreme Court released a seminal report.

The gathering Thursday at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis included some members of the original Racial Bias Task Force that issued the report. They talked about how the system still fails people of color, and how it has improved. 

"While the disparities that we see today may be different than the ones from 25 years ago, the urgency to address them is the same," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan during a brief opening address. Last year, she was the country's first Native American woman to be elected lieutenant governor.

"We must have people serving in the justice system who know how to work with diverse communities and have cultural competency in order to serve our communities justly and fairly," she said.

The half-day seminar was co-hosted by the Hennepin County Bar Association and Minnesota's 4th Judicial District. 

  The most recent data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections show that African-Americans make up 35 percent of the prison population. But they only comprise around 7 percent of the population of the state. Less than 2 percent of Minnesotans are Native American — but are 9 percent of Minnesota prison inmates.

"Minnesota still suffers from disparity issues," said retired judge Pamela Alexander, an original member of the task force and the first African-American woman appointed to the Hennepin County bench. She said while some of those disparities are the result of policing practices, judges can and should play a role in making the system more equal.

"We have to look at sentencing," said Alexander. "We have to look at how we set bail for people. Are we treating everybody the way we should? What statistics are we collecting to make sure we're doing things the way we should do them?"

The system has made some improvements since the release of the report. The courts now collect racial data on the people who enter the system. Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Natalie Hudson, who was also on the task force, said that makes tracking disparities and progress easier.

Hudson added that the courts began collecting racial data in 2002 and made it a formal practice in 2006.

The system may be doing a better job at providing qualified court interpreters. Hennepin County Judge Juan Hoyos said when he was a law clerk, he would be called on to provide Spanish interpretation in court cases.

"I had no training as an interpreter," said Hoyos. He occasionally saw Spanish-speaking police officers or family members of defendants called to provide interpretation.

"This is a place where Minnesota has really succeeded," he said. "Now, 25 years later we have one of the best interpreter services in the country. We now require certified interpreters in court when possible." 

Other discussions at the seminar focused on disparities in sentencing and the child welfare system, racial and cultural diversity in the criminal justice workforce and a presentation on Hennepin County's efforts to divert more young people away from the juvenile justice system.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said part of the solution lies in diversifying the ranks of criminal justice professionals and increasing cultural competency. Choi said while he knows there are many inequities in the system, he's hopeful that change is coming.

"We can do something around reducing disparities in our society, but we all have to start pulling together and I think if we all try and if we do the hard work — those hard conversations — I think positive change is ahead of us," said Choi.

Correction (Feb. 8, 2019): An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the title of Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Natalie Hudson.