“Despite the blindfold on Lady Justice, bias and racism means Black and brown people’s experiences in the criminal justice system sometimes feels more like punishment than justice,” said Dr. Artika Tyner, director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice at the St. Thomas School of Law.

“How can our communities love and protect themselves, but also help reform that system while holding it accountable?”

As moderator of the second community event for Twin Cities PBS’ Racism Unveiled initiative, Tyner deftly set the stage and opened the floor to the three panelists gathered to discuss the many facets of implicit bias within the criminal justice system and possible solutions for Twin Cities communities.

Dr. Tyner was joined by Dr. Jason Sole, a criminal justice educator and founder of the “Humanize My Hoodie” movement, Kevin Lindsey, CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center and Judge Stephen Smith, the second district judicial officer for Ramsey County.

Over the course of the hour-long event, the three panelists shared their thoughts on the many access points for racism and bias within the criminal justice pathway, false racial narratives, prison abolition, and creating spaces for marginalized communities and individuals to tell their stories.

Two themes that resonated throughout the March 25 event have been excerpted here: the school-to-prison pipeline and restorative justice.

THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE

Jason Sole
I was counted out at 16, 17. If I’m being all the way honest, it was just because that’s how the system worked in Chicago and beyond. Coming to Minnesota for refuge, I thought it’d be better. I thought it’d be nicer, but like you say, the racism wasn’t unveiled when I came here in ‘97 as an 18-year-old boy, and they threw me in them cages real quick. …

I went to college to just learn my laws, to bring it back to the ‘hood. Now I can partner with people and really be able to teach kids they rights. Fifteen-year-olds in my neighborhood needed to know they rights. ‘Cause the police hated me. And I used to say, “What you doing ain’t right. You can hurt me and all of that, but I know it ain’t right.” And when I studied the system, I realized that the system itself was criminal. It wasn’t me.

Judge Stephen Smith
I think about how implicit bias influences the way in which educators see our Black children. Some of these implicit biases include stereotypes about Black children, stereotypes such as: Black kids are louder, more disruptive, they’re not as intelligent, education is not as much of a priority for them. And so, if you view a child’s behavior through this lens, it is likely that you may very well misinterpret that child’s behavior.

Take, for example, a child who may be homeless. I see a lot of kids who are in families where if they’re not homeless they’re close to it, or they have unstable housing. And so they’re moving from one home to another, just trying to keep a roof over their head. Well, you take that kid — kid comes to school one day, kid is tired, ‘cause they don’t have a stable home and their sleeping pattern may be disrupted and so on and so forth. And so the kid comes to school, perhaps the kid is hungry, right? Hasn’t had much to eat. If you don’t have a stable house, the likelihood is that you are also dealing with food insecurity as well. Kid comes to school, he’s tired, he’s hungry. He starts to fall asleep in class. Teacher gets after him. He lashes out, maybe he says something, calls the teacher out of his or her name, or strikes out at one of his fellow classmates.

One kid. If you view Black children through this biased lens, it’s very easy to misinterpret that behavior, to conform with the way in which you see Black children being disruptive and violent and aggressive. On the other hand, if you step back and you would ask that child, “What’s really going on with you?” and that child had an opportunity to then explain, “I’m hungry,” then perhaps you start looking at that child a bit differently and you then try to work on getting the child what he or she may need. So implicit biases, they may cause one to misinterpret a child’s behavior. And in doing that, you very well could miss that child’s cry for help.

Kevin Lindsey
We found that Black students were eight times more likely to be suspended for a day in Minnesota than white students. And we took a look at Native American students, Native American students nationwide are five times more likely – in the state of Minnesota, they’re 10 times more likely – to be suspended.

And I tie this to Judge Smith’s comment about kids being hungry or things being a little unsettled at home and that potentially carrying over and that same research, the most common reason for why a child is suspended in school is because they’ve been acting disruptive or what is referred to under the Department of Education “with disrespect.”

And I want to be really clear here – if the student punched somebody, if they brought drugs into the school, the school is not going to report that as disruptive. They’re going to categorize that, pass that information onto the Department of Education in another category. So when I say the most common is “disruptive,” it’s not tied to anything more severe than that kid mouthing off to the teacher, to the adult. Thirty-six percent to 39% of suspensions every year fall into that category. And we’ve got great disparity.

Ten years ago, or 15 years ago, the Minneapolis Foundation found that one in 10 kindergartners who identified as African American had been suspended for more than a day. What is it that we’re seeing in these children — or are we even seeing them as children? That’s when we start talking about this implicit bias and actually being able to see the individuals.

PRISON ABOLITION AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

Jason Sole
So it looks like us actually attending to the needs of the community. We drive past people every day who we know need something. We all do it. You know, it’s like, how is it that we missing out on an entire group of people? It’s like everybody is doing okay. They thriving, they figuring out they stuff, but it’s like people that look like me are scraping the bottom. And that’s designed strategically. For us to abolish the prison system, we got to talk about those kids that Judge Smith brought up. For me it’s like – think about that kid that’s hungry. Think about what the Panthers did. They created free Breakfast Before School programs. We gotta be creative like that. Humanize My Hoodie – we created a hotline to help young folks so they don’t get caught up in this zone world and not being able to keep up with their work. We got young Black kids answering the calls and building connections and establishing relationships. That’s what prison abolition looks like.

Kevin Lindsey
If we take a look at data, we’d find that about a third of the individuals within the prison system have some type of mental health diagnosis or need. Why would we serve them in prison? We find that we have legalized various uses of controlled substances and we actually have profit-making businesses. So why are those individuals within the system? We have individuals – as my grandfather might say – do dumb, knuckle-headed things. Why are they in the system? Why aren’t we connecting them to a mentor or getting them into a program? Are we mad at them or we scared? And if we’re just mad at them because they did something dumb, let’s figure out a different way in which to do it. And by the way, this is a really expensive system. It’s three times more costly than it costs to send somebody to college.

Judge Stephen Smith
Part of that restorative justice process is not only the person that has done the act being able to come to terms with that, in forgiving themselves, and being remorseful for that behavior, but also the person on the receiving end of that behavior – if we are able to help them heal as well so that restorative justice then means you have the actor and the recipient both at a place where they are able to forgive each other. That, in my estimation, is a beautiful thing.

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This story is part of the digital storytelling project Racism Unveiled, which is funded by grants from the Otto Bremer Trust and HealthPartners.

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As jury selection began in the murder trial of former MPD officer Derek Chauvin in early March, Minnesotans – and others around the world – got an inside look at how implicit and explicit forms of bias work against people of color as prospective jury members. In the second episode of Trial & Tribulation: Racism & Justice in Minnesota, we talked to a variety of experts on how the jury system does – and does not – work for Black Minnesotans. 

For the first time in 27 years, most Americans surveyed by Gallup do not trust the police. A separate Gallup poll, also cited in a Minnesota report, found that only 19% of Black adults now trust the police. Over-policing, racial profiling and excessive force factor into that distrust. And while most Black Minnesotans surveyed want public safety reforms, white supremacy remains an issue. 

Data Reporter Kyeland Jackson left Louisville, Ky., Minnesota shortly after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. In “Tethered: How Race and Policing Binds Minneapolis to Louisville,” he hones in on the racism-fueled policing disparities that led to both Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths.