Get cited for driving while uninsured, public urination, shoplifting, or any number of other misdemeanor offenses in Minneapolis and you’ll likely end up with an arrest on your record, fines to pay, and a handful of court dates to get the matter sorted out.
For people who can’t afford to pay, or can’t make it to court because of work or child-care obligations, those relatively minor repercussions can spiral into something much bigger. In many cases, a $200 fine can grow into thousands of dollars, a revoked driver’s license and a permanent criminal record. It’s a cycle that city officials say contributes to Minneapolis’ glaring racial disparities economically and in the criminal justice system — and one they’re trying to remove with diversion programs and a new system for reviewing low-level cases.
In recent years, the city attorney’s office has been expanding the number of opportunities for people to take classes, meet with crime victims and perform community service as an alternative to paying fines or serving jail time. Now, it’s taking the approach one step further, developing a special team of prosecutors who will review cases before certain misdemeanor charges ever show up on people’s records.
City Attorney Susan Segal said the goal of those efforts is to spot and eliminate the “unfair barriers” that can keep people cycling through the criminal justice system. She said the city doesn’t intend to stop enforcing driving offenses or other crimes, but instead hopes to reduce the collateral impact they can have on some first-time or nonviolent offenders.
“I think everyone should be held to the same standards of not endangering other people, not crashing into parked cars or through people’s yards,” Segal said. “There need to be consequences for that. But if your life is being made a lot more difficult just because you have a lot less money than someone who has more money in the criminal justice system, then those are the things we really should be looking at.”
Segal’s office is hiring two attorneys for a “charging team” that will be tasked with reviewing cases. The City Council approved $248,000 in this year’s budget to launch the team, and Segal said she will ask for the same amount next year. The city and county are also implementing a technology fix that will route misdemeanor charges to a virtual “holding tank” until they are reviewed — rather than being sent directly to the courts.
As a part of that review, the charging team will provide feedback to the police officers on the evidence needed to pursue a case. They’ll also determine if people are good candidates for the city’s diversion programs for driving, shoplifting, obstructing the legal process and other low-level offenses like underage drinking. Those programs are open only to people who have not also committed more serious or violent crimes.
Segal said she expects the team and the technology to start operating by early next year.
Deputy Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he expects the new review process will be helpful for officers.
“We want to make sure that if there are any types of teachable moments officers can have on being more effective and helping to increase the satisfaction the community will have in their interactions, we want to do that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city continues to funnel more participants into diversion programs. A new offering for people charged with interfering with police was introduced earlier this year, giving participants the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a police officer to discuss the events that led to the arrest — and then get the charge wiped from their record. Arradondo, who helps run the program, said more than 20 people have already completed it.
A shoplifting diversion program introduced in 2014 was expanded last year to include people who fail to pay their cab fare or run out on a restaurant bill. Last year, 87 of the 117 people who enrolled in the program successfully completed it. Another 103 people completed a “restorative justice” program, in which they meet with people affected by their crime and complete other requirements, from drug counseling to community service to journaling.
Kayo Hussein, a college student who ended up with a $180 ticket for underage drinking, said the program was a needed alternative, because she couldn’t afford the fine. Plus, she said the process opened her eyes to the concerns of non-student neighbors affected by students’ alcohol use.
“It was more of a reflection process, a personal solution, versus just paying a fine and acting like it never happened,” she said.
The city’s largest diversion program, for driving offenses, got an additional $15,000 in this year’s budget. Similar programs are now available in other Minnesota cities and counties, and Minneapolis’ program has had more than 2,800 graduates who take driving instruction classes and agree to a payment plan for outstanding fines. At a budget hearing last fall, Segal said the program has a diverse pool of participants; three-quarters have been people of color.
Council President Barb Johnson said driving offenses amount to a considerable safety and quality-of-life issue in her north Minneapolis ward, and she believes the city needs to continue prosecuting offenders. But she said she’s supportive of the idea of giving people a second chance.
“I think it’s important that people have the option to do the right thing, not to ruin your whole life with one stupid mistake,” she said.
Segal said she sees the changes as part of a broader effort to reduce disparities, which also includes recent council decisions to eliminate ordinances prohibiting low-level crimes like spitting, lurking, or congregating on streets and sidewalks in groups.
Step in right direction
Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds, who has pushed for those ordinance repeals and a broader overhaul of the criminal justice system, said she sees the diversion programs and the new charging team as a step in the right direction. But she said the “patchwork” attempt at reducing disparities will have more weight only if the city changes the reasons police make arrests and how often they make them.
“They need to determine their philosophy, reduce the level of low-level citations and arrests, and divert those resources to solving major crimes in the city,” she said.