Will it take a pandemic for Minnesota to finally do what’s right?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a public health crisis in jails and prisons. Photo by Getty Images.

In a time of COVID-19, jails and prisons are unchecked incubators for the virus. Our state’s foot-dragging over the past year on real criminal justice reform — including on money bail and pretrial detention— has now become a potential death sentence. We risk our lives because we have privileged punishment over public health and continue to do so during a pandemic.

Two prisons in Minnesota have already reported the presence of COVID-19. The State Public Defender and the ACLU of Minnesota have called for the release of currently incarcerated people and a reduction of the flow of people into local jails on new charges. State and local leaders must act before we see rapid spread of the virus in local jails and state prisons, which would endanger corrections officers and help spread the disease beyond the prison walls.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, being incarcerated destroyed lives: Minnesotans are regularly forced to wait weeks and even months behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail for their freedom. A reminder: They are merely charged at this point and still afforded the presumption of innocence. And yet they sit in jail. Many plead guilty just to get home sooner. People locked in jail awaiting trial miss work and lose jobs and child custody, face eviction or foreclosure, and miss medical appointments and other important life events. 

Today, while we close schools and shutter businesses to avoid a public health catastrophe, we must also act quickly to empty jails and prisons for public health. 

There is broad movement across the country to release as many people from local jails as possible and avoid disastrous transmission of the virus.  In Ramsey county, we’ve seen an almost 50% reduction in the jail’s daily population in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, in Hennepin County, despite the release of some jail inmates, our organization Minnesota Freedom Fund is still posting bail for nonviolent misdemeanors.  We wish we were more optimistic about the actions of leaders in Hennepin County. But the realities of the last two weeks — as the spread of COVID-19 and its dangers in jails and prisons have been obvious — leave a lot to hope for.  

At Minnesota Freedom Fund, we regularly pay bail for low-income individuals who cannot otherwise afford to pay for their pretrial freedom. We also advocate for the end of pretrial detention. Unfortunately, every day last week, while other jurisdictions were working to empty their jails and curb arrests, we continued to receive calls from people who were being jailed in Hennepin County for $78 — the minimum court fee a defendant is charged and which turns into bail if they cannot afford it. In the eye of the storm of this pandemic, Hennepin County has been sending Minnesotans into its jail over $78 court fees, let alone money bail for charges such as homelessness and shoplifting that criminalize poverty. 

We should have eliminated money bail and pretrial detention based upon the very clear harms presented year after year. Now, we face a pandemic, and it could not be clearer that this system is broken and could be part of a public health nightmare. We have the power to stop this crisis. Let’s choose to do it now by making policy choices that should have been made before this crisis hit.