SAINT PAUL – The Minnesota House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division held a remote hearing to discuss issues surrounding Criminal Justice Reform and the Judiciary. The committee chair, Rep. John Lesch (DFL – Saint Paul), sees potential for numerous changes within the courts to better deliver justice and fairness.
“As part of our criminal justice reform work in Minnesota, we must recognize the courts play a significant role in whether or not folks have a real opportunity to turn their lives around, particularly when it comes to having a ladder out of poverty,” Rep. Lesch said. “When people can’t afford to pay a fine or fee for a minor traffic ticket, can’t afford to post bail, have their property unfairly forfeited, or can’t get an offense removed from their record when they’ve demonstrated they’ve turned things around, they find themselves working harder to dig out from a bigger hole. This results in a constant struggle to gain access to employment and housing, which are necessary to sustain themselves in our communities. Many of the ideas on the table are bipartisan in nature and I’ll remain committed to moving them forward. We must hold people who do bad things accountable, but justice for less than all can’t continue to be the status quo.”
The hearing predominantly focused on four subject areas: forfeiture reform, cash bail reform, court fines and fees reform, and record expungement. Support for the reforms discussed spans the political and ideological spectrum, with testimony coming from the likes of Julia Decker, policy director of ACLU-MN as well as from Jason Flohrs, state director of Minnesotans for Prosperity.
During the discussion of forfeiture reform, State Auditor Julie Blaha highlighted her office’s 2018 Asset Forfeiture Report which shows an uptick in the number of asset forfeitures over a five-year period. In 2018, gross sales of forfeited property or seized cash topped $11 million.
The panel also discussed proposed reforms to court fines and fees, an initiative championed by Rep. Lesch during recent legislative sessions. Fees and surcharges can often bring the cost of a basic traffic ticket north of $100, presenting a hardship for many families. An unpaid ticket can lead to late fees and collection charges, eventually snowballing into driver’s license suspensions. This can subsequently lead to other significant consequences like loss of employment and mounting debt.
Earlier this year, as part of the initial Minnesota Police Accountability Act, the House approved a measure to reform cash bail. The bill would have eliminated cash bail for those charged with a misdemeanor offense and would have required courts to release a suspect on their own recognizance unless the court determines that there is a substantial likelihood that the person will not appear at future court appearances or they pose a threat to a victim’s safety. Cash bail criminalizes poverty, forcing those without means to wait weeks, months, or even years for trial.
Finally, the committee discussed record expungement. The legislature last substantially reformed expungement laws in 2014. A nonpartisan issue brief on the topic is available from House Research.