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Choosing hope over despair

For the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to have continued relevance, it is hope on which we must focus.

For the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to have continued relevance, it is hope on which we must focus.
REUTERS/Larry Downing

This is the 13th in a series of occasional commentaries on the judicial system from the perspective of a District Court judge. 

Judge Mel Dickstein

Despair. That’s the best term for a feeling many of us had this past year viewing headlines about racial incidents in our state, and throughout the nation. Despair because racial problems are not new. Despair because the problems are not about to resolve quickly. Despair because some of the problems are so embedded in our society that change is difficult to effect.

Despair comes from seeing the racial divide in our community on a daily basis, and feeling that you can’t do anything meaningful about it. People throughout our community decry the racial disparities in employment, education, juvenile detention and criminal convictions. Our state’s statistics are some of the worst in the nation. The disparities in our criminal justice system are among the most serious. It isn’t that people of color in Minnesota are more dishonest than elsewhere in our country; rather, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our criminal justice system works.

Seize upon hope

But while despair is understandable, we can’t afford its luxury. It’s hope and not despair that we need to seize upon. Hope that there are people of good will throughout our community who understand that change is necessary and doing nothing is unacceptable. For the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to have continued relevance, it is hope on which we must focus.

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We each are called upon to do the best we can. The legislative bodies that make our laws, the business community that hires our labor force, the education community that teaches our children, and our justice system, where our laws are enforced and applied, all have a role to play. If we are citizens, we can volunteer our time and give to organizations who are helping effect change — social service organizations, education organizations, job placement organizations and others. There is no lack of opportunity to help.

If we are legislators, we need to ask how we can change the system for the better.

If we are involved in the justice system, we need to look for ways, small and large, to improve what we do. Simply doing what we have done before is not enough.

If we are the people of color impacted by society’s practices, we need to ask how we can change society, as well.

What is most important to understand is that if each of us is not a part of the solution, then we are a part of the problem.

Pilot diversion project

Not long ago, a group made up of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and police, developed a modestly priced, pre-charge misdemeanor theft diversion program for a pilot project. The hope was that the program would be implemented in many of our Hennepin County municipalities.

It wasn’t, though the program was successful beyond our expectations. The program worked smoothly. In addition, 40 percent of those who qualified ended up without a theft charge after successfully completing an educational session that had an historic recidivism rate of only 5 percent over three years. Over an 18-month period almost 100 people in a single suburb were successfully diverted from the criminal justice system.

But no other suburbs at the suburban courthouse where the pilot program operated joined the program — notwithstanding its success. Eventually, the company that ran the program couldn’t justify the time and expense without broader participation by other Hennepin County municipalities.

It’s difficult to think of a good reason why the program wasn’t widely adopted. Diversion programs recognize there are situations in which the community is better off if we try to alter an offender’s future behavior rather than proceed by the more conventional means of charging, and possible conviction and punishment. This is especially true when a crime involves the poor — who in Minnesota are disproportionately people of color.

A misdemeanor theft diversion program dealing with first-time offenders is also a good idea because when people have a theft charge their chance of obtaining a decent job is substantially diminished. That’s why a program aimed, in part, at leveling the playing field for those seeking to correct their behavior and become constructive community members is a small but important part of correcting the racial inequities not only in our justice system, but in our job force.

A modest beginning

Implementing a misdemeanor theft program is only a small beginning in improving our system of justice. It isn’t a pie-in-the-sky objective; it’s conservative and progressive and easily accomplished by people of good will. The program is a modest beginning in a community that prides itself on its fairness. It means we can treat first time offenders more intelligently, and consistently, across the numerous municipalities that comprise Hennepin County.

This diversion program is just one, small effort. But we have to begin somewhere. So we’re going to try again, this time with a nonprofit restorative justice model bringing together those who committed the theft offense,and the merchants who suffer the losses. Restorative justice leaders have taken the initiative in developing this new theft diversion program. We hope this time the program will be widely accepted by our Hennepin County cities.

We’ll keep trying until we’re successful. It’s what we ask of ourselves. We believe there are people of good will in law enforcement and in our business community who will see the importance of a misdemeanor theft diversion program to the entire community.

We also ask for your help. Please ask what you can do to improve our community — then choose hope over despair, and turn your answer to action.

Mel Dickstein is a judge in Hennepin County District Court, where he handles a mix of civil and criminal cases. He is a former partner in the law firm Robins Kaplan.


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