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Mayor wants to scrap cash bail in Minneapolis

In a plan endorsed by Mayor Frey, prosecutors and public defenders would find other ways to help misdemeanor suspects make it to court dates.

MINNEAPOLIS — Many of the inmates you'll find in the Hennepin County Jail haven't been convicted of a crime yet. They're incarcerated because they can't come up with the cash to post bail, which would allow them to go free until their next court date.

The cost to taxpayers of keeping them locked up, plus the human toll of lives upended by pretrial incarceration are reasons cited for those pressing to replace the cash bail system in Minneapolis with something more effective and humane.

"The size of your wallet should not determine how the criminal justice system treats you," Mayor Jacob Frey told reporters Wednesday.

"Under the cash bail system thousands of Minnesotans, including those in Minneapolis, suffer in jail before their day in court before they have been convicted of a crime."

Frey was flanked by prosecutors, public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates at a press event hosted by All Square, a cafe in south Minneapolis that has drawn national attention for hiring persons with criminal records and helping them transition back to normal life.

City Attorney Susan Segal said the most common reason judges set cash bail is because the person accused of crime has a history of failing to show up for court dates. Posting bail, in theory, gives the suspect financial incentive to make it to the next court date when the bail money would be refunded, or applied to a fine.

RELATED: Mayor Frey introducing alternative to cash bail

The mayor has endorsed Segal's proposed alternative to cash bail; to connect people arrested for most misdemeanor crimes with social workers who could make sure suspects get to their court dates and help them address other issues that may have led to their arrest.

"You can address the underlying needs of offenders, particularly repeat, chronic low-level offenders, you’re going to help them and get the actual long-term results you want," Segal remarked.

Frey's 2020 budget blueprint includes $75,000 in one-time expenses to set up the cash bail alternative program, plus $25,000 from the city attorney's budget.

He asserted those costs would be offset by drops in crime, and lower costs for housing the accused. He noted that the city currently pays Hennepin County $144 per night, per inmate to house people awaiting trial.

City Prosecutor Mary Ellen Heng said the new system would not be available to those accused of domestic abuse or DWIs. It would cover a range of misdemeanor-level crimes such as trespassing, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, consuming alcohol in public, theft, loitering and public urination.

"Those offenses are often driven by other issues – someone is trespassing at the U of M because they don’t have a place to live, so they’re staying in the building," Heng explained.

"Or they’re deemed disorderly in a store because they have mental health issues and people don’t know how to interact with them."

Lives disrupted

Tonye Honsey operates a charity known as the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which posts bail for people so they don't have to wait out their court dates behind bars. Honey told reporters the median cost of cash bail is $150, which is too steep for many of the impoverished inmates.

"When you look at that, it’s $150 that separates people from their families, from their jobs, from the community, from their homes," Honsey said.

Her organization has posted bail for 250 people so far, and the overwhelming majority of them have followed through and gone to their court dates.

Advocates and former offenders told reporters people sitting in jail awaiting trial often lose their jobs and their housing before they have their day in court, which makes it even more difficult to convince a judge that they won't re-offend.

"There’s really good research that being in jail as little as 48 hours makes it more likely the person will commit a new crime," Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty explained. 

She said having a parent incarcerated can also be traumatizing to children, which creates more long-term costs to society at large.

Frey and City Council Member Andrea Jenkins said the racial component can't be ignored -- people of color are more likely to be held on cash bail, and it can launch a cycle that contributes heavily to poverty.

"Cash bail is one of those issues that is the beginning of the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color, on women, on people living in poverty," Jenkins explained.

"Being in jail for not having the bail impacts your ability to have a income, to have housing, to have opportunities in school."

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