Two Twin Cities prosecutors say they’ll no longer request bail for people charged with a variety of nonviolent felonies. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Pete Orput of Washington County say their goal is to reduce racial disparities and minimize jail populations.
Minnesota’s constitution prohibits authorities from holding people in pretrial custody without giving them a chance at freedom by handing over money. Bail is meant to ensure that defendants show up for subsequent court appearances.
Advocates for abolishing this system say it penalizes those who can’t afford refundable cash bail or the 10 percent nonrefundable fee for a bail bondsman.
In a virtual news conference Wednesday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said starting Jan. 1, his staff will no longer request bail for defendants charged with any of 19 nonviolent felonies including auto theft, check and insurance fraud, and some drug crimes.
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“We know that the individuals on a number of these crimes are disproportionately Black. We think that this change will reduce the disparity of who’s sitting in our county jail,” Freeman said.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said most defendants will show up for court if given a summons. Jailing people on suspicion of nonviolent crimes is a waste of taxpayer money, Orput added.
“Give it the big or little test. If it’s little, don’t even bother to book them, we’ll deal with it later. And if it’s big, we’ll get on top of it. Rapes, carjackings, those things, of course we’re going to try to hold them,” the Washington County attorney said.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison supports the prosecutors’ effort. He says the inability to pay bail can devastate someone in an already precarious financial situation.
“If you are that person who cannot get out of jail pretrial, you haven’t been convicted of a thing but you can’t bail out because you just don’t have the money, your job that’s waiting on you, you may lose it. You may lose that apartment,” Ellison said.
Hennepin County chief public defender Mary Moriarty agreed that the system is rife with injustice. But Moriarty said the changes in the Hennepin and Washington County Attorney's offices aren’t that significant.
“Anyone charged with any of these offenses who has no prior history is going to get out of jail anyway. If the judge is following the law, they’re going to let them out.”
Even if a person is convicted of one of the 19 nonviolent felonies on the list, they wouldn’t go to jail, because the presumptive sentence is probation.
Moriarty said the county attorneys are simply bringing their policies in line with what state law already requires.
Orput and Freeman said they want to work with legislators to implement bail changes statewide. Moriarty said judges need to move away from automatically setting bail for certain alleged offenders and use evidence-based practices to determine the true threat to public safety.