Instead of paying bail, people charged with certain misdemeanors in Minneapolis could soon be paired with a social worker to ensure they make their court hearings.
Mayor Jacob Frey has proposed spending $75,000 to start the program next year. It would serve as an alternative to the cash bail that city prosecutors often seek against defendants who are considered most likely to skip their court dates.
Frey and other city and county officials, including City Attorney Susan Segal, outlined the program Wednesday outside All Square, a grilled-cheese restaurant in south Minneapolis that employs people who were once incarcerated.
“The size of your wallet should not determine how fairly the criminal justice system treats you,” Frey said. “Relatively small amounts of bail can have an enormous impact on a whole lot of people.”
The pilot is modeled on the “Supervised Release” program rolled out in New York City in 2016 that has reduced the number of people in jail, according to local reports.
Under the program, people who are charged with a misdemeanor — such as public urination, loitering or disorderly conduct — and who are considered likely to not show up to court would be paired with a Hennepin County social worker after their arraignment.
The defendant and social worker would then determine a plan to make sure the person returns for trial hearings, such as setting up weekly calls or rides to court, Segal said.
If they develop a plan, city prosecutors would not seek bail and the defendant would be released, she said. Case workers could also help defendants with housing and substance-abuse issues.
It would not cover domestic violence or drunken-driving cases, Segal said. She added that people considered to be at low risk of failing to appear in court for some misdemeanors are already released without bail.
Frey said about 1,000 people could use the program. The city attorney’s office would also put money toward it, bringing total funding to $100,000.
Cash-bail reform has taken shape in several ways across the nation, including jurisdictions that have eliminated cash bail entirely.
Tonja Honsey, the executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that pays bail for low-income defendants, said the program is a “step in the right direction” toward larger changes. The median bail her organization pays is about $150, but some defendants have trouble coming up with even lower amounts.
“We look at this as not just a social justice issue, but it’s also an economical issue,” she said. “It’s extracting wealth from communities.”
At Wednesday’s event, City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said she considers cash-bail elimination “one of the top issues.” She said she would also like the city to reassess laws that result in “crimes of poverty.”
“We need to really take a look at how we’re continuously criminalizing these behaviors,” she said.