Misdemeanor charges like driving while uninsured or shoplifting can spiral out of control for those unable to pay or make court dates, sometimes resulting in fines in the thousands of dollars, a revoked driver’s license or a criminal record. But they don’t need to. To help address the problem, Minneapolis is launching a special team of prosecutors to review cases before misdemeanor charges show up on people’s records, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Minneapolis already has a number of opportunities for low-level offenders to take classes, perform community service or meet with crime victims in lieu of fines or jail time. City Attorney Susan Segal told the Tribune that these diversion programs attempt to eliminate the “unfair barriers” that keep people in the criminal justice system despite committing relatively small offenses. Those barriers disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color, much like the legal financial obligations Oscar Perry Abello wrote about for Next City last week. Segal said Minneapolis will continue to enforce the law, but will reduce the impact on first-time and 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,” she 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.”
Minneapolis’ City Council approved $248,000 in this year’s budget to launch a team of two attorneys to review the cases. The city and county are developing technology to sort misdemeanor charges into a “virtual holding tank” to be reviewed instead of being sent right to the courts. The attorneys on the “charging team” will provide feedback to the police about evidence required to pursue a particular case, and they’ll determine which low-level offenders are good candidates for diversion programs.
These programs, which are only open to people who have not also committed more serious or violent crimes, vary depending on the charge. One program gives people the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a police officer to discuss the events that lead to their arrest, after which the charge is wiped from their record. In the restorative justice program — 103 people completed it last year — offenders meet people affected by their crime and complete requirements that could include drug counseling, community service, even journaling. Over 2,800 people have participated in a diversion program for driving offenses, which requires them to take a driving instruction class and agree to a payment plan for outstanding fines.
Segal told the Tribune she expects the attorneys and the sorting technology to be operating by early next year. Other cities, including Santa Fe, Seattle and Albany, have also made strides in expanding pre-arrest diversion programs.
“I think it’s important that people have the option to do the right thing,” said Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, “not to ruin your whole life with one stupid mistake.”
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.