When someone enters the criminal justice system, it can feel to the family like that person is going into a black box.

The person facing charges is locked away into a system where phrases like habeas corpus and writ are tossed around.

When inmates call from jail or prison, they may not have time to explain where their legal case stands – call time is limited and expensive. They want to know how their family is doing, but some prisoners have been charged up to $14 per minute, and the courts have shot down attempts to rein in this price gouging.

“All parents know is their son is inside the black box,” said ACLU-MN Campaign for Smart Justice organizer Elizer Darris. “They’re in the dark. Nobody is explaining the legal system to them. They have no support. They don’t feel like they have a voice.”

These were some of the common concerns that ACLU-MN Smart Justice team members heard while going door-to-door for the midterm elections. The Smart Justice team members didn’t canvass for any candidates – the ACLU is non-partisan. They door-knocked and held community events to help end mass incarceration and increase voter turnout.

ACLU-MN Smart Justice team
The team focused on helping voters understand the powerful role that County Attorneys play in overly harsh sentences and reinforcing racial disparities. Prosecutors can push for tough charges, long sentences and lengthy probation or parole.

ACLU-MN’s results were remarkable:

  • The Smart Justice Campaign knocked on 10,000 doors.
  • We hosted several events, including a live forum in which Hennepin County Attorney candidates shared their views on reform.
  • We boosted voter turnout in several precincts by as much as 26 percent.

Darris says listening, rather than talking, was key to ACLU-MN’s success.

“We were empowering them to give voice to their experiences,” he said. Some potential voters said they felt railroaded into a plea bargain. Others noted the over-policing of their neighborhoods, with squad cars constantly driving by, but officers rarely leaving their vehicles just to talk and build relationships.

Some residents with past convictions were surprised and even elated to discover they were eligible to vote. ALCU-MN helped them register right on their doorsteps.

Most of all, Darris said, he saw people who wanted to make a difference and use the power of the ballot to change the system. ACLU-MN will build on this momentum through legislative, legal and community action.

To keep up the pressure, more community forums and meetings with policy makers are planned, along with a community advisory panel. We’ll keep working to persuade prosecutors to help reform the criminal justice system.

“I think North Minneapolis sent a signal this election cycle,” Darris said. “We are the people’s bosses. We put them in place. We’re not asking for favors – we’re demanding results.”