Liberty and Justice for All

Liberty and Justice for All

png;base646c24c33475bfb99fThe year is 2013. Our nation has been crawling and clawing its way towards progressive thinking and radical acceptance. Racially speaking, however, relations remain polarized in many parts of the nation, especially pertaining to law enforcement and the American justice system.

As marijuana arrest rates have climbed across the country, a glaring statistic has emerged. Nearly four times as many African Americans are arrested for marijuana-related offenses than Whites, according to the ACLU. In Minnesota, the discrepancy is twice as large. Nearly eight times as many African Americans here are arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2012, African Americans accounted for 5.5 percent of the population of Minnesota. 86.5 percent of the population was White.

On December 29, 2012, I was arrested by the Minneapolis Police and brought to Hennepin County Jail on charges of theft and felony drug possession. I was held for a week before appearing before a judge, where I was granted release on my own recognizance under conditions stipulated by the court.

As per conditions, I reported regularly to the Hennepin County Government Center to submit to drug testing and to meet with a conditional release officer who had been appointed to me. It was not until I had failed multiple UA screenings and discontinued all communications with my conditional release officer that I was threatened with a warrant being issued for my arrest.

I entered detox at Fairview Riverside Hospital shortly thereafter. Upon contacting Hennepin County and informing them of my whereabouts, the threat of the impending arrest warrant was immediately revoked. I received instructions to appear in court once again in mid-March to receive my sentence.

As the court date neared, my nerves began to fray. I had received tickets for minor offenses in the past, but had never considered the implications of a felony charge. Would I be able to vote? Get a job? Rent an apartment? Receive student loans? I stared hard at myself in the mirror, tears streaming silently down my face, contemplating the fate I could be dealt at the hands of the American justice system.

I suppose, demographically speaking, I had the upper hand going into court that day. I am a young white female of European descent. I come from an educated, middle-class background. I was raised in a wealthy white suburban area of New Jersey.

In court, I was offered participation in a diversion program called Operation De Novo. De Novo is a program for first-time felony offenders in Hennepin County. As a client of De Novo, one is expected to report to a case worker, submit to random UAs, abide by all laws and have no negative contact with law enforcement agencies of any kind, and receive written permission from the District Attorney before traveling outside of the metro area. After successfully completing a year of this program, my charges would be dropped and I would have the opportunity to have my record expunged.  De Novo is tailored to grant clients the opportunity to reintegrate themselves into and become valuable and contributing members of society.

I am, needless to say, overwhelmingly grateful for the De Novo program, and for the unexpected route my travels through the justice system have taken. As of today, I have been clean for just over seven months, am enrolled as a full-time student at MCTC, and am slowly picking up the pieces of my shattered life. Others, however, are not so lucky.

One of the women I met as a patient at Wayside Women’s Treatment Center, a 90 day program for women battling substance abuse and mental health issues, told me a significantly different story. For confidentiality purposes, I will refer to her as Q.

Q was born and raised in Chicago, in a minority-concentrated neighborhood. She is African American. She suffers from debilitating depression, and receives social security. She has several children, some still living in Chicago, others still under her care. She now lives in North Minneapolis, an area known for high crime rates and poverty.

Earlier this year, Q was charged with felony drug possession in Hennepin County. Her charge, like mine, was a 5th degree offense. It was, in fact, her only charge, as opposed to my two charges. She did not have any prior charges in Minnesota. She was brought to Hennepin County Jail, where she subsequently spent the next 54 days. When she finally appeared before a judge, she was ordered to complete court-appointment treatment, as well as drug court, a demanding program in which the defendant is required to appear weekly at the Hennepin County Government Center for classes and drug testing, continuously appear before a judge, report to a probation officer, and abide by a multitude of other conditions as stipulated by the court.

Q was sent straight from jail to Wayside. Were she to leave Wayside, she would have been forced to withdraw from the drug court program and execute a significant sentence in a correctional facility. Were she to violate the terms of her probation in any way, the results would be the same. If Q is to successfully complete the entire three years of drug court, she may receive the opportunity to have her charge dropped to a lesser charge, perhaps a misdemeanor, or a gross misdemeanor. Her charges will, however, remain on her record, whether she is to complete the program or not.

Considering that Q and I were both arraigned on the same charges, the outcome of our arrests are disturbingly different, making it impossible to ignore the role that race plays every day in our justice system. If I was African American, how long would I have ended up sitting in jail? Would I be appearing weekly before a judge, still? Would I perhaps, as Q was so often tempted to do, forgo the strenuous three-year period of drug court and choose rather to execute my sentence in a correctional facility in order to emerge and be “off-paper,” and out from under the thumb of the scrutinizing court system?

Would I accept my deviant label and continue to destroy my life with drugs, alcohol, and crime, knowing that the felony charges would appear on my record for at least the next ten years regardless of whether I turned my life around or not? This particular choice is extreme, but unfortunately happens often, and thus the cycle of crime and poverty amongst lower-class or minority populations is perpetuated.

I do not know where Q is today, or which choice she eventually made.

Race continues to be a defining, divisive factor in the lives of the American people. The media, politicians, and the public feed into the frenzy of polarization. We tread lightly over the subject in instances such as the Trayvon Martin case, where inside the court room, race was never mentioned, and on the outside, it was seemingly all that was talked about. Such cases become a monster which will satisfy nobody. They exist in the form of a traveling circus, materializing suddenly, only to disappear just as quickly when the spectacle has ended. The core conflict continues.

Until the issue of racial discrimination in the American justice system is sincerely addressed, there will be no such thing as liberty or justice for all.

Mugshot of Ms. Stanley-Ayre courtesy of MPD and Busted!