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2018 Election Preview: District Attorney of Hennepin County

Racial disparities and police shootings under the spotlight in Hennepin County election

Racial disparities and police shootings under the spotlight in Hennepin County election

The Minneapolis police arrested 47 people between January and May as part of sting operations against small-scale marijuana sales. But the Hennepin County public defender’s office publicized in June that 46 of them were African American, and that all had been charged with a felony. “Approaching black men and women who are low income and homeless and then having the county attorney charge them with felony drug sales makes me very angry and disappointed,” said Mary Moriarty, the county’s chief public defender. The Minneapolis police quickly announced that it would end the stings, and County Attorney Mike Freeman released a statement explaining why his office was unaware that the prosecutions had nearly only targeted African Americans. “Because [the stings] occurred over a period of months and were distributed to about a half-dozen of our attorneys for prosecution, we did not detect any pattern,” Freeman wrote.

But racial disparities in marijuana enforcement in Minneapolis were well-established long before this controversy. “African-Americans in Minneapolis were more than 11 times likelier than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana,” an ACLU report found in 2014. Freeman has served as the county attorney since 2006. (He also served for eight years in the 1990s.)

Racial disparities and punitive prosecution are under the spotlight in next week’s election for Hennepin County attorney, which pits Freeman against attorney Mark Haase. Both are Democrats; Haase won the party’s endorsement at a convention in May.

Freeman points to his success at reducing juvenile incarceration through programs that divert young defendants from detention. He has also implemented changes in access to diversion programs to address racial disparities, and has partnered with other officials to discuss shifting approaches to law enforcement toward more rehabilitative policies. But Freeman also voices more confidence than Haase regarding the overall health of the state’s criminal justice system. “Perhaps prosecutors have contributed to mass incarceration in some places in the U.S. but we have not experienced ‘mass incarceration’ in Minnesota,” Freeman writes in the first sentence of his answer to an ACLU questionnaire. He rightly points out that Minnesota’s incarceration rate is among the lowest in the country. But it remains far above that of other countries; it has risen over the past decade despite a nationwide decline; and it is subject to a massive racial disparity: The incarceration rate of Black Minnesotans in state prisons is ten times that of white Minnesotans, according to the Sentencing Project.

By contrast, Haase is likelier than Freeman to highlight the impact of police and prosecutorial discretion. “A lot of disparities are created by how the law is enforced by police,” he said about the marijuana stings. “It’s the prosecutor’s responsibility to adjust charging accordingly… I’m going to move away from prosecuting marijuana and publicly advocate for legalization partly because of the disparities.” Haase has also proposed new changes to reduce the use of cash bail;  Freeman has indicated more comfort with the current rates of pretrial release.

One of the biggest issues in the campaign has been Freeman’s decision to not prosecute the two police officers who shot and killed Jamar Clark and Thurman Blevins, two Black men. Before making those decisions, which drew large protests, Freeman ended the use of grand juries in police shooting cases, as had been demanded by activists. Haase says that he would create a “police charging advisory panel” to issue recommendations in police shooting cases.

update (Nov. 11): Mike Freeman won reelection on Nov. 6.