The first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem. It is not an easy step. Lots of people with addiction cannot take that first step. They are in denial.

But what if it is a community of people who have a profound problem? Can they collectively acknowledge the first step toward recovery?

That is where our community is with respect to race and the justice system. Repeatedly, we have been confronted with compelling evidence that our community has a serious problem with racial disparity in its justice system. Repeatedly, we have either said, “We can stop,” or we get defensive and attack the messenger. The time has come for us to change our response.

The recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota (ACLU) on the racial disparities of arrests comes as no particular surprise (“ACLU: Blacks arrested more for minor crimes,” Oct. 29). Sure, you could write off the ACLU as some leftist organization — except that its report is based on hard data. The ACLU’s data and its analysis replicate numerous studies dating back decades about the problem of racial disparity in the justice system in our community.

In 1993, the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Racial Bias in the Judicial System said: “Institutional or systemic change can be hard to effect even when there is substantial agreement on problems and solutions. It follows then that it is much harder to effect change in a system where there is disagreement on whether or not a problem exists, much less its basic shape and character.”

After the task force issued its report, many said, “We will change.” There were good changes, yet in 2007, the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime on Justice issued a report that found that “[t]he racial disparity in Minnesota’s justice system is exceptionally high compared to other states. From arrest to imprisonment, the disparity is over twice the national average.” Since 2000, the report said, the Council on Crime and Justice “has undertaken seventeen separate studies in a comprehensive effort to understand ‘why’ such a large disparity exists here, in Minnesota.”

And now we have the ACLU report.

We need to accept we have a problem. All of us have a right to be safe, but protecting the public and being racially fair are not mutually exclusive. The ACLU report is interesting, in part, because it is not focused on “serious” or “violent” crime. There is no legitimate reason why there is a vastly disproportionate arrest rate for young black people for possession of small amounts of marijuana or for loitering.

The justice system desperately needs the trust of the public. Community policing is premised upon community support. But before you conclude that this is a problem with the Minneapolis police — stop. All of the police, prosecutors, defenders, corrections officials and the community at large own a piece of the mess. And yes, so do the elected officials — including judges. Every one of us in the justice system bears responsibility for this problem.

The ACLU report focused on arrests, and it is likely a lot of good police officers feel a bit besieged. What happened to these people after they got arrested? There is an ugly side of the criminal justice system. A lot of these cases were eventually dismissed. In the case of loitering, an astonishing number of cases are dismissed. But some people still lose their jobs because an arrest causes them to miss work or the housing they seek is denied, because after an arrest they have a “record.” We have poor people feeling trapped and pleading guilty — and while some of them were actually guilty, too many were innocent and just giving up.

We are not doing this community a service, either, by having an attitude that “it is just a misdemeanor” — or even “it was eventually dismissed.” This community has a right to demand an effective justice system, and we are not being as effective as we should be.

There is a connection between racial disparity in the justice system and what is happening in our community. Child protection failures, racial disparity in low-level offenses, achievement gaps in school, and yes, even violent crime and gang problems are all related. The beginning of an end to these issues starts with a collective admission that we have a problem with race.

The solutions to our problem of racial disparity in the justice system may be as intractable as our failure to acknowledge the existence of the problem, but we have no choice other than to act. At a minimum, we need to acknowledge the cumulative nature of racial disparities. Racial disparity often builds at each stage of the justice continuum, from arrest through release from prison. And even then it does not stop. Employment opportunities for ex-offenders are limited. Hennepin County has a history of very good dialogue among the justice system participants, but in order to combat racial disparity, everyone needs to commit to a systematic approach. Without a systemic approach to the problem, gains in one area may be offset by reversals in another.

It is possible that what works at one decision point may not work at others. The workforce of the Hennepin County justice system is diverse, but more can be done. We are better at training than before, but we can improve. We surely excel at studies and data collection, but we are far weaker at doing something about the data. We have had success in some areas, such as the alternatives to juvenile detention, but at times have been too timid in our willingness to be innovative — in part, because of a fear of failure.

Given the persistence of the problem of racial disparity in the justice system, however, a very good case can be made that reasoned experiments to find solutions are a better alternative than continually repeating what we are presently doing — and hoping for a different result.


Kevin Burke is a Hennepin County district judge. This article was also signed by the following Hennepin County district judges: Pam Alexander, Tanya Bransford, Nicole Engisch, Thomas Fraser, Anne McKeig, David Piper and Edward Wahl.