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Minneapolis introduces no-bail alternative

A pilot program would pair social workers with people charged with low-level offenses to help see that they show up for court dates without having to post bail.

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Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, city attorney Susan Segal and criminal justice advocates announce an alternative approach to cash bail on Wednesday in front of Minneapolis grilled cheese shop All Square that provides job experience for people who have been incarcerated or have criminal records.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Minneapolis officials and criminal justice reformers proposed a program Wednesday that they say could keep about 1,000 people a year from spending time in jail because they can’t pay bail imposed for low-level offenses.

Mayor Jacob Frey said thousands of Minnesotans are unjustly punished with jail time before they’ve been convicted by a court because of the state’s cash bail system.

“The size of your wallet should not determine how fairly the criminal justice system treats you,” Frey said. “Few people would take issue with that premise, but study after study has shown that cash bail is designed to create just that outcome.”

The new program, which was proposed in the mayor’s budget, would cost $100,000 total and pay for county social workers to work with people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to ensure they show up for court dates without having to post bail.

City attorney Susan Segal said that prosecutors from her office would not ask for bail in cases where people cooperate with the program. It’s modeled on a program that’s operated in New York City, where she says the initiative has reduced the time people spend in jail and saved the system money. 

Segal said the proposed program would connect social workers with people charged by the city for minor offenses like public urination and illegal camping.

“This current proposal we put forward should help us address the group of people who are on our kinds of cases, lower-level offenses, who have a history of a failure to appear for court,” Segal said. “Those are the cases where cash bail is being imposed.”

Officials say many people are being held in jail because they’ve previously missed court dates and bench warrants were issued for them. Providing them with resources to ensure they make it to court negates the need, they say, for bail to be imposed.

City officials said it costs about $144 a day for the city to house each person in jail.

Eliminating cash bail is a big step the city could take towards making Minneapolis more equitable, said City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins.

“We know that the criminal justice system operates long before people are incarcerated, and cash bail is one of those issues — that’s the beginning of the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color, on women, on people living in poverty,” Jenkins said. “We’re going to do all we can to eliminate that oppressive system in Minneapolis.”

Tonja Honsey, executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which helps low-income people pay bail, said most of the clients her programs works with need an average of just $150 to get out of jail for low-level offenses.

“That’s $150 that separates people from their families, from their jobs, from their communities, from their houses, from employment,” Honsey said. “At the root of it, it’s extracting wealth from communities.”

All Square workers Jessie Jones and Amanda Kard
All Square workers Jessie Jones and Amanda Kard weather the lunch rush at the south Minneapolis grilled cheese shop, whose mission is to give people with criminal records jobs and career experience.
Jon Collins | MPR News

The press conference announcing the program was held in front of Minneapolis grilled cheese shop All Square, which hires and provides job experience for people who have been incarcerated or have criminal records. 

Ronnie Jackson, who works at All Square, said his bail was set at $100,000, which was out of reach for his family.

“I lost everything. I lost my car. I lost my girlfriend at the time,” Jackson said. “Literally, sitting in jail, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have nothing left now.’”

Ronnie Jackson says his bail was set at $100,000
Ronnie Jackson says he's seen people's families suffer because a low-level offender couldn't get out of jail to work.
Jon Collins | MPR News

The Minnesota Legislature took up the issue of cash bail last session, but the legislation stalled. Frey said the city would again push for statewide reforms of the bail system, and that the city’s program could provide a model for a statewide initiative.

The budget that includes funding for the program still needs final approval by the City Council. If approved, the city hopes to launch the program in January and run the pilot throughout the year. If it’s successful, the mayor’s office would seek to make the program permanent.