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Council post gives Judge Alexander new platform to push criminal justice equity

Judge Pam Alexander
Courtesy of Judge Alexander
Judge Pam Alexander

When Pam Alexander leaves the Hennepin County Court next month to become president of the Council on Crime and Justice, there will be as many black judges on the state’s largest court as there were when she was appointed by Gov. Rudy Perpich in 1983.


“I mentioned it in my letter to Gov. Pawlenty that I hope he gives that some consideration,” Alexander said in an interview. “I do think the bench needs to reflect the community it serves … In fairness, he has appointed Indians and Asians.”

She said Pawlenty also has appointed one African-American judge, Todd Barnette. The bottom line, however, is troubling: Even though the court has grown by almost a third — to 62 judges — and the black population has increased since she became the youngest person ever appointed a Hennepin County judge, the number of black judges will be down by five from its high of seven when she leaves the court June 1.

(The demographic breakdown of the court looks like this: 55 percent male, 45 percent female, and 16  percent — or 10 judges, counting Alexander — minority. In addition to the current court’s three African-American judges, there are three American Indians, two Asian-Americans and two judges of Hispanic descent.)

She fears that the number of African-American students enrolled in law schools today may be even lower than when she graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1977. She was one of five black students in a class of about 275.

These abysmal numbers made her decision to leave the bench hard, Alexander said. Yet, at age 55, she figured she had one more big shot at “making a difference,” especially in the African-American community.

New post gives her high-profile platform to be outspoken

The half-century-old Council on Crime and Justice gives Alexander a platform to become more outspoken about her concerns. The council has done frequent studies on the reality of racial disparities throughout the Minnesota system. Those studies have shown that Minnesota has one of the worst records in the nation in creating an equal-for-all justice system.

Alexander’s legacy moment as a Hennepin County judge came in 1990 with her decision to dismiss charges against five men charged with possession of crack cocaine. She ruled that Minnesota laws differentiating between forms of cocaine were discriminatory. At the time, crack possession — the drug of choice in the black community — led to 20-year prison sentences. Cocaine possession — the drug choice among whites — led to sentences of five years.

The Minnesota Supreme Court validated her ruling, and the state Legislature responded — by upping sentences for powder cocaine.

Politically, however, Alexander’s decision became an anchor on her future, earning her the label of “activist judge.” When Sen. Paul Wellstone nominated her in 1994 to become a federal judge, the proposal went nowhere under President Bill Clinton, who didn’t want to inflame his political enemies by naming “activists” to the federal court.

Last December, Alexander’s 1990 decision was validated by U.S. Sentencing Commission, which voted to lighten some crack cocaine sentences in the federal system, noting that the system should be “colorblind.”

Alexander refused to be ecstatic about the ruling, noting, “The wheels of justice had moved much too slowly.”.

In retrospect, she believes she was fortunate not to become a federal judge, because the federal judiciary is tightly bound to follow sentencing guidelines that sometimes seem politically inspired. More importantly, she would have missed the chance to spend seven years as a juvenile court judge in Hennepin County — a time she considers the most gratifying of her career.

Alexander cherishes her years in juvenile court
“You get to have a hand in success stories,” she said. “I believe I did good here. I have seen families who had kids in foster care be brought back together with those kids going to college.”

There are small, sweet moments that feed hope.

“I went to a movie with my daughter not too long ago and a girl came up and said, ‘Hi, you’re my judge. Just wanted you to know that I’ve still got my job and I’m still going to school.’ ”

Those are the memories she’ll take with her. She said upward of 70 percent of the cases out of juvenile courts end up as success stories.

But there’s incredible pain in the juvenile system, too.

“You have 12- and 13-year-old children standing before you saying, ‘I just wanted to help my mom pay the bills.’ You have so many kids taking ownership of huge responsibilities and never having a chance to just go out and be kids and play baseball and go to school.”

And the hardest job in the system is terminating parental rights.

“The most heart-wrenching decision you can make is to tell a parent they can never see their child again,” said Alexander. “Sometimes, you go home and cry.”

She sees complex social factors complicating lives today
What so many of today’s kids don’t have is what she and her friends had when they were growing up in south Minneapolis: stability and whole neighborhoods looking after them.

A number of complex factors have rocked that stability. Sometimes, she believes, good intentions backfired.

For example, she has come to believe that busing to achieve school integration was destructive to both inner-city neighborhoods and the children who grow up in them. Suddenly, neighbors didn’t know the kids at the neighborhood schools. There was no village helping parents raise kids.

“Where I grew up, there were active communities of families,” Alexander said. “You knew if you wandered off and were doing things you shouldn’t be doing, someone would see you and say, ‘I’ll call your dad.’ And they would. Those dynamics changed.”

Such changes in dynamics created a change in the attitudes of too many kids who “think they have no choices,” she said.

Despite her deep concerns about so many profound things —  low graduation rates and high incarceration rates for inner city kids, lack of diversity in colleges and on the bench — says she leaves the courts the same hopefulness she had when she first walked into the courthouse as a judge 25 years ago.

She believes there are solutions to deep problems, if society is willing to make the commitments to help contemporary families. In her new position, she hopes to help create the will — in the population as a whole and in the Legislature — to come up with creative solutions.

But leaving the court does create some dilemmas. She’ll be leaving behind colleagues she respects greatly. She’s not quite sure what to do with the eight black robes she’s collected over the years. And her new staff is not sure how to address her.

“When I went to meet with the staff they asked, ‘What do we call you?’ Even though I’m retired, I can still call myself Judge. But I told them, ‘Just call me Pam, and you don’t even have to stand when I come into the room.’ ”

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