Government is meant to protect individual rights. Laws should protect us from abuse and not become tools of abuse. Today, unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to be a black person in the United States without feeling as though you have been beaten down by a criminal-justice system that is desperately in need of reform, either personally or through family members.
Nationally, one in three African-American men will at some point go to prison. Closer to home, African-Americans are arrested at a rate 20 times higher and imprisoned at a rate six times higher than white Minnesotans. Following the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York, and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, we have watched as protesters from Ferguson to New York City to Oakland to Minneapolis have marched through the streets demanding some kind of change.
The protesters’ demands come at a time when the public’s trust in government is at a record low, and there is near-universal frustration with partisan gridlock. However, as one Republican and one Democrat, we would like to suggest that although these recent events have produced sharper racial and political divisions, this does not need to be the case.
Conditions for change
We believe that these events have created the conditions that may lead to substantive reforms. We offer the protesters and those frustrated with system three ideas for specific meaningful reforms that can be supported by the community, the Legislature and elected leaders that will improve the lives of all Minnesotans, and particularly African-Americans and other communities of color in Minnesota.
Many have asked why black people have been so outraged by the Ferguson case. Michael Brown may not have been the “perfect victim,” but the mere fact that he was unarmed was enough for the people of Ferguson to say that they’d had enough. The outrage also comes from experiences with the police as witnessed in the Eric Garner video. Black Americans are too often subjected to inconsistent, unequal and disproportionate enforcement of the law. When Bernie Madoff was first suspected of securities fraud he was politely invited to discuss the issue with law-enforcement officials. When Garner was suspected of not paying the appropriate taxes on cigarettes he’d been selling the conversation he had with police ended with the loss of his life.
Use body cameras
Therefore we believe that calls for body cameras must be acted on decisively by local officials. Minnesotans should have a clear view of what is being done in their name. There are serious privacy concerns with their use, but that should not stop the debate; instead, it should be part of the debate.
The Eric Garner case demonstrates that body cameras alone will not stop abuses of power, but without the video evidence citizens would have remained in the dark. The use of body cameras would have prevented the ambiguities that were present in the Michael Brown case.
Many in Minnesota are concerned about abuses of surveillance. Surveillance should not be one-sided. It should not exclusively be turned outward toward the citizens but, rather, inward toward government to ensure transparency and accountability.
Reconsider harsh sentencing
We need to reduce the punitive arm of the state and reconsider the harsh sentencing laws that are too often used as tools of coercion and control. Republican and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said in a 2011 Washington Post Op-Ed that “The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.” Leadership on this critical issue is sorely needed.
There is positive energy on both sides of the aisle at the national level to recognize, review and reform the practice of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses. These tragic events must serve as a catalyst to finally address the issue here in Minnesota.
Finally, because of our incredibly long probation sentences compared to other states, thousands of citizens are denied the opportunity to exercise the right to vote for as long as 10, 20 and even 30 years. Many are working, raising families, and paying taxes, but they are not allowed a voice in civic matters that affect them and their children. One in five African-American men are not allowed to vote.
Research has shown that children whose parents voted were more likely to vote later in life themselves. In fact, we both had formative experience as children of going with each of our parents to the voting booth. Therefore, we implore protesters and community leaders to put this critical issue high on their list of demands. The State Legislature should give strong consideration to conditionally restoring the right to vote for citizens living in the community who are under criminal-justice supervision, something that many other states already do, both blue and red ones.
Last summer, Sens. Rand Paul and Cory Booker joined together to work toward national criminal-justice reform. As Paul has said, “The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record. Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Many of these young people could escape this trap if criminal justice were reformed.”
Find common ground in Minnesota
When such ideologically opposite figures as Cory Booker and Rand Paul can come to a consensus for the urgent need for criminal-justice reform, we believe that the Minnesota Legislature’s Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on issues that are integral to American ideals of liberty and justice for all. A recent survey by the website 247WallSt.com ranked Minnesota the 2nd worst state in the country for black Americans partially because of the problems associated with an unfair justice system. This is shameful, and the time to act is now.
Minnesota Republicans and Democrats have a unique opportunity to show the country we are ready to do our part in order to help our nation, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” These three meaningful reform measures should be adopted, promoted by not only the protesters but also all those who have expressed the idea that something isn’t right with our criminal justice system.
The Minnesota DFL has long waved the flag of civil rights. The Republicans, whose party began as an abolitionist movement, have in the past been great champions of civil rights, must continually renew their commitment to this critical social issue and develop stronger bonds with communities of color. Because of these recent tragic events, all Minnesotans have become stakeholders in the problems created by rampant overcriminalization.
We believe our respective parties in Minnesota have the ability and talent required to help Minnesota lead the way in becoming a more perfect union. Justice should be blind to partisanship.
Chris Fields is the deputy director of the Minnesota Republican Party and a veteran. Sarah Walker is the founder of Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and a DFL Activist.
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