Racial Justice Network: Frank Talk About the Pushback to Reforming Criminal Legal System

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On May 3, Nekima Levy Armstrong hosted a Racial Justice Network forum to ask questions of the new law enforcement officers for Minneapolis and Hennepin County: Minneapolis police chief Brian O’Hara, Hennepin County attorney Mary Moriarty, Minneapolis Community Safety Commissioner Cedric Alexander, Minneapolis city attorney Kristyn Anderson, and Deputy City Attorney David Bernstein.

These are excerpts from the nearly two-hour conversation, starting with a question from Levy Armstrong about their priorities as newcomers in their roles.

Moriarty, who took office as Hennepin County attorney in January 2023, indicated that transparency, public safety through evidence and data, and community involvement are some of her priorities. She also said we are overdue for the racial reckoning that started to emerge after the murder of George Floyd.

“What happened to the impulse [toward addressing police] reform and racism?,” she said. “I’ve heard conversations that make our youth sound like super predators. We’re just at the beginning of trying to figure out what we can do as prosecutors in this community to try to undo a lot of the injustice that’s happened in the past.”

She says that in her previous life as a public defender, “there were things that I did that we all thought was the right thing to do at the time.” Now that she is leading the prosecutor’s office for Hennepin County: “One of the things I’ve challenged people in our office to think about is: What is our goal? Is that [approach] going to deter an action? … Part of the job is to train people on best practices, expose them to research on adolescent brain development, so that we can all be looking at the best research we have on how we can be successful in terms of public safety.”

‘If locking everybody up would make us safer, we would be the safest country in the world because we have the highest prison population. We are also the only western country that treats children under 18 as adults and sends them to adult prison.”

Hennepin County Attorney mary moriarty

O’Hara has been Minneapolis police chief since November 7, 2022). His response: “Minneapolis is dealing with some significant challenges around both gun violence and serious street crime, as well as challenges around earning trust and legitimacy in community. When people do not trust the police, they are not willing to tell us what’s going on.”

He said he led police reform efforts in Newark, New Jersey, “which was able to make significant improvements in a police department that had a very serious and strained relationship with community for decades, and at the same time, drive down violence and maintain those reductions in a real way. Those are the types of things that will be a part of the work that we do here in Minneapolis.”

“People Want Progress, Not Change”

Levy Armstrong talked about living in Los Angeles when Rodney King’s beating by police was filmed in 1991, which she thought would lead to long-lasting changes around police brutality. The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, also yet another example caught on video by a bystander. “We have plenty of information to work with as a society regarding what happens behind closed doors, or even out in the open, when law enforcement doesn’t think they’re being watched.”

She asked forum participants to speculate on why it is taking so long to address the realities of injustice: “Do you think it’s a lack of political will? Of people being in denial? Or the fact that, I would argue, mainstream society has a certain rapport with law enforcement, with our prosecutorial system, that makes it difficult to bring about change without significant backlash?”

Alexander indicated that when the white elementary school children at Sandy Hook in Connecticut were “gunned down, you would think in this country that would have made some change around gun legislation. And what has happened since then? Absolutely nothing.”

He speculated that our nation has a short attention span, and the deaths of Black and brown individuals is an even lower priority for too many people. “Until we address social issues that have ties to racism in this country, we’re not going to fix anything. All we are going to do is have these conversations over and over and over. … We can’t get any reasonable gun legislation in this country. It creates a sense of hopelessness for people in our society. But we can’t be hopeless, because hope is all that we have.”

Moriarty added: “People in power like it the way it is, to be honest with you. You try to talk about the kinds of changes we really need in the system and they are resisted at every turn. We need to have really honest conversations about why that happens here. We do talk the talk about change and root causes, but we don’t actually do the work.

“In fact, we work behind the scenes to sabotage people who are trying to do the work.”

She said that “those of us who are fortunate enough to be in these positions have to be humble enough to say that what we might have thought was right at the time wasn’t. And we did harm. Now we have to dedicate ourselves to correct in a way that makes sense. … It’s hard to affect change as a community member when you are outside the system.”

Moriarty indicated that players in the system tend not to be transparent about what is not working, according to data, and thus do not work with the community to get better results. “We hide information because we’re fearful that somebody’s going to criticize us, and we just can’t be those types of leaders. Are we really in this for public safety and for equity? Or are we just talking and not following that up with action?”

O’Hara added: “There’s an incredible amount of trauma. Clearly, I am [in Minneapolis] because there was desire to have an outsider come here. I misunderstood the sentiment and the feeling. I perceived that everyone here wanted to change: residents, government, police officers. And I was wrong. People absolutely want progress, but people don’t really want change. I have learned that when I do something different from the way things have happened here in the past, it causes disruption to informal power networks and the status quo.”

Moriarty was asked about the case that State Attorney General Keith Ellison took over, away from Hennepin County, because a 15-year-old was not charged as an adult. She explained that the case was “a horrible incident of domestic violence. The family will never have their loved one back again. I sat down with the family, and I listened to them and tried to answer their questions. But there really isn’t anything I could say to a grieving family about why I made the decision to not certify a 15-year-old as an adult [who took part in the homicide alongside adults].”

She has heard from some Black members of the community who believe kids should be sent to prison for long periods of time. “Historically the system has been very good at sending Black and brown youth to prison for long periods of time. I’ve talked to many members of our community who have different views, many of whom support the decision, some of whom don’t. Some of them believe in [the realities of] brain development, but maybe don’t like that particular decision. The last thing I want to do is cause more trauma or pain to members of the Black community. It was surprising to get such pushback over not sending a Black youth to prison…. if we truly are going to approach the system in a different way.”

“One thing I think about a lot is that our system has always represented the value of a person’s life, or injury, based on the punishment that’s meted out. We value somebody’s life as a victim when we as a system send the person who harmed them to prison for long periods of time. I understand why, because this is what the system has done.

Moriarty continued: “I could have sent that 15-year-old to prison. With our guidelines, he’d be out in his early 30s. We know very well that when children are sent to adult prisons … they come out incredibly traumatized. If there are opportunities to rehabilitate a 15-year-old so that he won’t come out of prison — a very violent, dramatic place — as a danger to the community, then we are serving public safety.”

In support of Moriarty’s decision, the National Lawyers Guild – Minnesota Chapter, sent a letter to the Minnesota Attorney General and Governor asking them to restore the plea agreement for the young person involved in the case. “Long prison terms tend to reinforce anti-social conduct rather than rehabilitate people; a long term in an adult prison for a juvenile is particularly harmful and counterproductive. …  Juveniles do not have full brain development and therefore are more prone to make poor judgments that would not happen when they get older; in this case, the evidence shows that the juveniles were manipulated by an adult into engaging in a heinous act.”

Future stories in the Re-Imagining Public Safety series will offer the perspectives of men who were incarcerated as teenagers in adult prisons.