A question arises in my mind every time I’m in Hennepin County courts: why is it seemingly 80 percent of defendants are African American, especially when, according to the 2010 census, only 8.4 percent of people in Minneapolis are non-Hispanic Blacks, a ratio difference of 10:1?
Why is our constitutional guarantee of “checks and balances,” i.e. fairness also for the accused, too often absent in the county courthouses and city offices?
This 10:1 figure is but one example of why our justice system needs checks and balances. As I noted, nearly four years ago, Blacks in Minneapolis were 11 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates by Whites.
African Americans are stopped for any number of blatant profiling “reasons”: driving while Black, walking downtown at night while Black, approaching White people while Black, etc.
As studies have shown, there is an upside for city and county coffers: those stopped can be fined so that moneys are added to the city or county budget. Some municipalities even do this especially to poorer people who are unable to afford attorneys.
We see the same imbalance in arrests, sentencing and imprisonment. When politicians of the left or right go too far, the other side needs to be able to reel them back to center to seek the unity of Abraham Lincoln’s “united we stand, divided we fall” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s approach of “non-violence.”
Recall the drug sting operation in downtown Minneapolis in June 2018 in which the Hennepin County District Court and Hennepin County Attorney office wanted us to believe that there was no justice imbalance.
Yet, 46 of the 47 arrested for selling one to two grams of marijuana were Black (see my June 21, 2018 column). Even Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty reached out to the courts, the county attorney and the mayor of Minneapolis, regarding this prejudicial injustice and denial of fairness.
Former State Supreme Court Justice Alan Page once warned of the dangers of a Minnesota imbalance regarding the lack of justice for African Americans and others of color in the Minnesota courts.
When former Democratic Governor Rudy Perpich attempted to jump-start opportunities to seek equal justice for the sons and daughters of the African, neither the state nor the city supported him on this. Many thought when he appointed judges Michael Davis, LaJune Lang and Pam Alexander to the Minnesota State Court, we would be taking another step forward in achieving justice under the color of law. Instead, in contemporary terms, justice too often remains a two-tiered system, one for Blacks, one for Whites.
Twenty-five years ago, I already had a long record as a civil rights activist and supporter of fairness under the color of law, which is why I was encouraged to give testimony before sitting judges. I gave testimony to the State Supreme Court Special Commission before a distinguished panel in the Hennepin County Government Center chaired by then-Minnesota Chief Justice Robert J. Sheran.
Saddened by the continued “business as usual,” I testified about this dangerous pattern and practice of denying Black Minnesotans protection under the law.
Many White judges sitting on the Hennepin County District Court bench pretend to not see the pattern of disproportionate practices resulting in injustice and unfairness for African American males and females who enter their courts hoping for equal justice in the courtroom.
And, despite all of our civil rights advocacy for courtroom justice, White and Black leadership alike remain partners in being silent today regarding this “business-as-usual” practice.
I, however, stand at the ready again.