Today the ACLU of Minnesota is launching its Campaign for Smart Justice, visit our new campaign website! This campaign is a coordinated national effort to reduce the size of the prison population in this country by half. Once that goal is achieved the campaign will shift towards reducing the remaining number by half again. The campaign focuses on the areas in our justice system that produce the greatest racial disparities, seeking systemic change. If this sounds too unrealistic, or too out of reach, or too idealistic then I would be the first to say you may be right. These goals may just be lofty and pie-in-the-skyish. But my own life is a testament to seeing what is seemingly the impossible become the possible and what many would vision as unlikely become the reality.
When I was fifteen years old I was arrested for homicide and eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I was still a teenager with no prior run-ins with the justice system. When the judge banged his gavel and solemnly pronounced, “I sentence you to spend the rest of your natural life in the care of the Commissioner of Corrections” my knees buckled. I knew what the sentence would be for first-degree homicide while committing aggravated robbery, but hearing the words spoken over me was extraordinarily jarring. I was soon transported to state prison with adults and other juveniles who ranged from 14 to 19 years old. I was mentally disconnected from the story of my life for the first few months in prison. I wasn’t sure if I would make it in there. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. When I found myself at what was likely the end of my proverbial rope, an older inmate began helping me read better, think deeper, see greater and want more. He helped to ignite a fire inside of me that had slowly died away. I began studying law and questioning everything about my life and what possibilities remained. My studies led me to one firm conclusion: I didn’t have to die behind bars. The gulf between my appellate attorney and myself continued to widen as I began vigorously questioning every aspect of my case, including her defense of it. I was told if I really wanted her to raise the issues I was pressing her on then I should raise them myself. I did. And to my great fortune, she decided to adopt my argument as her own. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed my life sentence. Its decision was based on the fact that the prosecutor presented no evidence that the jury could rely on to sentence me to life. I was overcharged. I was going home. But many others never will get this type of opportunity. I was like a unicorn.
Flash forward a couple of years and now I’m an ACLU Smart Justice organizer in the Twin Cities. In Minnesota, racial disparities continue to plague nearly every system that interacts with the public. The disparities are stark and persistent. I recall recently looking at a document that detailed the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and nearly losing my breath. The difference in incarceration and detention rates between African American youth and ALL others were so stark that I was nearly floored. I saw visions of broken children like I was so many years prior.
I am not an academic who just reads about the impacts of the justice system on people. I lived the nightmares that exist only in the furthest recesses of the mind. I was fortunate to survive. It is my privilege to fight on the front lines in order to drive down disparities, make communities safer, create holistic reentry processes, foster richer conversations between the “system” and the people, and hold elected officials accountable.
We are starting our campaign by focusing on the power of the prosecutor. This individual has the authority to charge as high or low as they choose, ask for accessible or inaccessible bail, charge or not charge, set the prosecutorial atmosphere of restoration or retribution, drive mass incarceration up or down by driving to prisons or diversion programs, and be communally-oriented or system-oriented as the voice of the people. As such, the Smart Justice Campaign has determined to place resources behind voter registration, education and mobilization to hold the office of the prosecutor accountable to the will and voice of the people. We do this by hosting debates, door knocking, phone banking, being present at events, and being part of coalitions and formal committees in order to impact change. The power of the prosecutor can’t be denied…but the power of each cast ballot cannot be denied either.
Visit the new website that we launched today to learn more about our campaign, and how you can get involved.
We need you, and we need to speak up for the tens of thousands of Minnesotans who are locked out of the ballot box because of a criminal conviction. Join our movement