Compared with our Midwestern neighbors, we are known as a progressive state. In the Twin Cities, we pride ourselves on our eateries, nationally recognized bike lanes, museums, festivals and traditions — all of which celebrate what it is to be a modern-day Minnesotan. Yet within this community-oriented utopia we call home, there lie blatant disparities and inequities.
Not only are we last in the nation for financial equity between whites and people of color, but our state’s prison population is growing so rapidly disproportionate that blacks and American Indians are incarcerated at rates that total nearly 50 percent of the prison population, despite the fact that they make up only 7 percent of the state population combined. When confronted with these statistics, the equity we claim to enjoy is revealed as illusory, and we are asked whether we shall continue in our ignorant comfort or stand with our unreasonably targeted community members.
The tough-on-crime attitude that has persisted in political platforms and criminal-justice agendas since the 1980s has fueled the widening racial gap in our prisons, while also irreparably damaging the individuals and families touched by such policies. The war on drugs gave rise to mandatory-minimum sentencing that revoked the discretionary role of judges and indiscriminately sent thousands of low-level drug offenders to prison.
The result is prisons overcrowded with nonviolent offenders, many of whom are suffering from the mental and health implications that accompany addiction, but who are left to languish without proper rehabilitative treatment. Their unproductive time in prison not only disrupts family and community relationships, but they also are labeled as felons upon re-entry into society, exposing them to open discrimination. Housing and employment are now blocked by structural barriers, while societal stigmas stifle meaningful interactions; the accumulation of these negative factors ultimately results in an increased chance for a return to prison.
We are failing these members of society. Though they pose no threat to public safety, causing themselves the most harm of all, we deny them rehabilitative and restorative treatment. Mandatory-minimum sentencing disproportionately affects communities of color, despite studies showing that whites and people of color use and sell drugs at nearly indistinguishable rates.
In the last weeks of this legislative session, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has introduced a bill that can alleviate prison overcrowding by approximately 600 beds, while concurrently reducing the number of nonviolent drug offenders who are sent to prison. The bill would allow making a distinction between high-volume traffickers and low-level offenders, shifting the narrative from indiscriminate incarceration to providing rehabilitative and restorative services to those who are suffering from serious drug addictions. The fact that this bill would reduce some mandatory minimums, if not completely eliminate them for lower-level drug offenses, would have a monumental impact on the families and communities that continue to be affected by our state’s pattern of mass incarceration.
This bill is by no means perfect, as it is the product of a compromise between two divergent political parties; however, the national issues of injustice are closer to home than we like to think. They manifest themselves in the economic disparities between races; in the disproportionate incarceration of our communities of color; in the police shooting of Jamar Clark, and in the freedom of his killer.
There is much work left to be done if we are to reach the equity we all dream of. We can no longer claim inculpability in the face of these community injustices. We must work collectively to correct these inequities because quite simply, in the words of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, “we all do better when we all do better.”
Divine Zheng, of St. Paul, is a student of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas.