Fighting the roots of crime

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As the Council on Crime and Justice turns 50, it looks to new initiatives for the future

When Dandi Yadeta had his wallet stolen in March, he lost more than money.

An Ethiopian immigrant who came to Minnesota in 2004, Yadeta was carrying important documents and irreplaceable photographs when his wallet was stolen as he worked in Minneapolis at the Oromo Community of Minnesota.

“The hardest thing was that my green card, other important documents and pictures of my family I had for 10 years were in the wallet,” Yadeta said.

The police investigation did not result in any arrests. To replace his Social Security card, Yadeta needed two forms of picture ID, which were stolen along with his wallet. He lost $300 in cash and was forced to cancel his credit cards, leaving him unable to pay the replacement fees for the government-issued documents he needed.

“I couldn’t apply for a job without a Social Security card. There was no way I could call someone and get even $5 to buy milk. It was the worst moment of my life,” Yadeta said.

Yadeta called the Council on Crime and Justice in July for help. The crime victim advocate, who asked to go only by “Lori,” the name she uses when working with victims, assisted Yadeta in filing paperwork and covering the cost of replacing his green card and I-94. The Council contributed and worked with another agency to secure a total of $360 to help Yadeta. While the dollar amount might not seem like a lot, the assistance the Council on Crime and Justice has provided for Yadeta and others like him for the past 50 years is priceless.

The Council on Crime and Justice is a Downtown-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in ensuring public safety. It does this through work that includes protecting the rights of ex-offenders and victims, as well as performing research, demonstration and advocacy. Using results from ongoing original research, the Council illustrates the relationship between education, family structures, social services, poverty and crime, and puts together initiatives to counteract negative trends.

As it celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this month, the Council on Crime and Justice joined forces with local leaders to outline an ambitious proposal for Minnesota’s future.

“We have looked back 50 years at how the justice system has changed in Minnesota. We asked people to help us identify what drove those changes both for historical purposes, but, more importantly, for learning what they might tell us about the future,” said Tom Johnson, former Hennepin County attorney and current president of the Council on Crime and Justice.

“Framework for the Future,” a report created through collaboration with 25 experts who contributed a wide range of perspectives on the Minnesota criminal justice system, was the result.

“We’re trying to figure out with our limited resources where we can be the greatest benefit in the least amount of time,” Johnson said.

The Family Strengthening Project and C-Dreams, a program for the children of incarcerated parents, are among the Council’s programs to facilitate positive change. Without intervention, the children of incarcerated adults are five times more likely to go to prison at some point in their lives.

Among the Council’s most successful initiatives is the “Community Corrections Act,” a policy passed in the early 1970s de-emphasizing incarceration when an offender does not present a risk to public safety. Johnson believes Minnesota must return to an historic justice model of rehabilitation and redemption.

“People who may not even have a conviction are getting penalized because they still have a record, and that just doesn’t seem fair. What’s the public safety need and benefit of doing it? There’s no need and there’s no benefit,” Johnson said.

The Council runs the Criminal Expungement Clinic, a service for ex-offenders to seal their nonviolent criminal records, which could otherwise make it difficult to find employment or housing.

“Our public safety is enhanced if we can get ex-offenders working — all the research shows it. A 35-year-old man who has a job and a living wage after he comes out of prison is less likely to recidivate than a member of the general population,” said Guy Gambill, the Council’s advocacy coordinator.

Public opinion plays a role in making this change, Johnson said.

“There’s a huge threshold to get beyond that allows people to be more comfortable with this as not just a possibility but a reality. Until we get there, we shouldn’t expect much by way of different results,” he said.

The Council has developed a one-sided reputation based on its work benefiting ex-offenders in recent years, Gambill said, stressing that the organization focuses on all aspects of the criminal justice system.

The Council maintains the General Crime Victim Services Program, including a 24-hour crime victim hotline. This service is unique because it is offered regardless of whether an arrest or prosecution takes place.

“That’s relatively rare for certain crimes,” Johnson said. “That’s when you’re left seemingly on your own, and that’s when our services come in.”

Larry Nordos of South Minneapolis had his vehicle stolen from East Lake Street in July. When the car was recovered by the police 10 days later, he received a call from the impound lot. The Council on Crime and Justice assisted him by paying more than half of the $190 fee to retrieve his vehicle.

“I feel that it’s wrong to victimize someone whose car is stolen. It’s not enough that your car is stolen, you [then] have to pay to get it back… that’s exploitation,” Nordos said. “[The victim advocates with the Council] simplified a negative situation a lot.”

Yadeta, whose wallet was stolen, agreed that the advocates provide a guiding hand through a difficult situation.

“They are special people who are really patient and knew how to deal with these things. I don’t think there is a better place in America that freely helps people,” Yadeta said.

When looking into the future, the Council identified racial disparity as one of the most serious issues within Minnesota’s criminal justice system today. The state prison population has multiplied by six times in the past 50 years while the state population has not yet doubled, according to the Council on Crime and Justice’s website. Meanwhile, the percentage of persons of color in the state prisons has increased to 42 percent, yet persons of color make up just 14 percent of Minnesota’s population.

“This has historically been one of the best states to live in, and all the portents are there to say we’re along the same path to develop as a state like Michigan has. Detroit has 42 prisons. We have eight,” Gambill said.

The Council found that homelessness, especially related to mental illness and chemical addiction, is a contributor to racially disparate incarceration rates.

“It is disproportionately populations of color who, if they have any option for treatment, it’s through the criminal justice system, and the penalty they pay for that is to have a record even if [that treatment] is successful,” Johnson said.

The negative impact of this problem may be widespread because police have less time to fight violent crime when they must respond to excessive petty crime.

“The criminal justice system uses police as de-facto gap fillers for a lack in social services and mental health care services. They haul in 5,000 homeless people a year on citations and arrests. Instead of getting somebody help, we exacerbate it by throwing the book at them,” Gambill said. “We have three young women get raped on the North Side, and it doesn’t even make the radar [because] the police are so busy chasing after [petty crime] and fulfilling multiple roles instead of getting to be law enforcement officers.”

Johnson believes policy reform is crucial to distinguishing between criminals and individuals struggling with a mental illness or chemical addiction.

“Up until three years ago, African Americans were accounting for three-fourths of all drug arrests within the city of Minneapolis, and figures show that drug use is relatively comparable across racial lines,” Johnson said. “It becomes a vicious circle, and we have a hard time figuring out where we intervene to break it.”