City Attorney’s office seeks alternatives to fees and jail time

Reform initiatives in the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office are aimed at making criminal justice more equitable for people of all income levels.

Criminal Division Deputy Mary Ellen Heng told a Council committee in August that the roots of one initiative came from staff who noticed deteriorating conditions of people in jail with mental illness.

“We want to make sure that the people that are being held in jail are the right people and are being held for the right reasons,” she said.

They are looking for alternatives to cash bail for those who live in poverty, and alternatives to detention for the mentally ill. They’re also trying new methods to encourage people to appear for court dates without immediately booking them in jail for failure to appear, a practice that takes officers off the street for a couple of hours.

“We’re going to be looking at smart things we can do to not only improve the safety of the public but have less of a disparate impact on people just because they don’t have a lot of financial resources,” said City Attorney Susan Segal.

One legislative proposal would eliminate court surcharges for people of low income who receive traffic citations. Segal said a $50 traffic ticket can yield a $75 court surcharge. The city attorney’s office is also exploring sliding fee scales for reinstating driver’s licenses, which can cost $750 for a DUI.

“We want people to be able to drive legally and to have insurance,” Segal said.

A new virtual “holding tank” in development for low-level offenses would allow the city attorney’s office to review cases and perhaps refer an offender to a diversion program before the citation hits their criminal record.

Forty people charged with obstructing legal process as a misdemeanor were referred to a new diversion program this year. As part of the program, the offenders sit down with a Minneapolis Deputy Chief to discuss the issue that led to the arrest. Some of those who met with officers were arrested while protesting at the 4th Precinct, Segal said.