Since longtime Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman was re-elected in November, he has sought to improve or implement policies that give low-level offenders an easier time in the criminal justice system.
His office has been requesting lower bail amounts and has made it easier for defendants to recover forfeited property and get expungements of their criminal records. Just a few weeks ago, Freeman made a controversial splash when he said he wouldn't prosecute most cases involving small quantities of marijuana.
Some of the changes were made months ago, but their effects are starting to show. Critics have said his policies don't go far enough and that they need to be more transparent.
"These were necessary changes to make the system fair and save money and energy to focus on the more serious issues," Freeman said. "The public needs to know about these policies because there is lots of misinformation out there. I know everybody won't agree, but I think my office is trying to do the right thing all the time."
The new expungement policy has been in place for about a year, but Freeman has only recently started to see its effects. For misdemeanor offenders who complete the terms of a diversion program and remain law-abiding for a year, the County Attorney's Office will automatically start the expungement process.
Expungement permanently removes a charge from the criminal record.
The office will consider expunging gross misdemeanors and felonies if an offender doesn't break the law for five years. The old procedure would put the burden on the offender to file paperwork with the court. More than 500 expungements have been completed, Freeman said.
"I'm looking at the possibility of making it easier to expunge more cases, but that will take changes at the Legislature," he said. "I'm pretty excited about this."
Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said expungement is supposed to allow people to move forward with their lives. But the current policy allows the county attorney to oppose expungement for acquittals and dismissals, she said.
Moriarty would like to see Freeman reconsider that option.
"Even when a person successfully completes a diversion program and has the case dismissed, the county attorney will oppose expungement until another year has passed," she said. "This means that employers, landlords and any other member of the public can see the person's record, putting them at a disadvantage for yet another year. And this is a person who did everything that was asked of them."
In February, Freeman also implemented a more lenient property forfeiture policy. Previously, the office wouldn't pursue forfeiture of cash or jewelry valued at less than $300. He said he didn't want officers wasting time seizing small sums of money from a street arrest. Freeman raised the threshold to $500.
He has also decided that his office won't pursue forfeiture of a vehicle based on seizures of less than 100 grams of marijuana or other drugs valued at less than $100. The new policy emphasizes provisions dealing with "innocent owners," which prevents vehicles from being forfeited if they don't belong to the offender.
"Forfeitures are supposed to be an additional penalty, but the punishment needs to be proportionate to the crime," Freeman said.
The policy with the greatest impact has involved lower bail requests. This was kicked off by the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office and then adopted by the county attorney.
A recent analysis of jail bookings showed that a significant number of arrests were for bench warrants for lower-level citations. A bench warrant is issued when a defendant fails to appear in court. Even for a minor offense, defendants were often required to post a $78 bail for release.
The City Attorney's Office recommended that the first time these defendants miss a court hearing, law enforcement assign them a court date instead of issuing an arrest warrant with bail attached. Police can issue the date from a computer in their squad cars.
For no-shows on low-level felonies, Freeman said his office will arrest a person and take photographs and fingerprints but then release them with a court date and no bail. This saves the county money and frees up more space in the jail, he said.
Since January 2017, nearly 4,500 people have avoided jail through city and county bail request changes.
"I'm supportive of any and all efforts to reduce the harm that can be caused by the criminal justice system," said Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal. "I'm very much in favor of moving toward automatic expungements. That just makes sense. There is lots of research out there that shows the harm that is being done. It's proof to any skeptic."
Teresa Nelson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said Freeman's bail policies lack details on how his office will handle requests on various felonies.
"I don't think the county attorney is factoring in people's ability to pay bail," she said. "I also have concerns about racial disparities. These new policies seem like baby steps."