In early February, the Multi-Religious Fellows gathered at the Minnesota Humanities Center in Saint Paul, MN for their latest cohort meeting. The subject was “Ensuring Equal Legal Justice for All” – a topic not only complex, but timely.
In November 2018, residents in Florida overwhelmingly had supported the restoration of voting rights for former felons who had successfully completed their sentences. In late December 2019, Congress passed, and the President signed, a historic reform measure designed to dramatically rework criminal sentencing and reduce the country’s vast Federal prison population. Both moments reflected a rare convergence of those who are usually on opposing political sides. More germane, both events highlighted the salience of this topic to the concerns of our various religious and cultural communities in Minnesota as they champion the safety and security of all our citizens.
A number of experts helped explore these and other compelling issues. Macalester professor Karin Aguilar San Juan, who chairs the American Studies department at the college, and who routinely teaches about the American prison system, opened the exploration by asking each of the fellows to reflect on the following questions:
- How does your religious community deal with trespassing, offenses, crimes, mistakes, sins?
- What are the teachings in your communities about the proper way for people to repair the damage done–to others and themselves?
She then presented on the historic background of the prison system and the current challenges of addressing legal justice in the context of our deepest values and historic faiths, including the tension in traditional teachings between the “demand for justice” and the “call for compassion.”
The Honorable Michael J. Davis also addressed the group. Appointed by President Bill Clinton, Judge Davis has had a distinguished career on the United States District Court, both as a champion for racial justice and reform and as a university professor and community teacher of the law. Sharing his vocational journey, he touched on some of the more significant professional challenges of a lengthy career. Then Judge Davis and the fellows engaged in a deeply personal, candid exploration of some of the more difficult questions the judge has been forced to confront in his tenure. On several occasions, Judge Davis spoke of his lasting faith in our institutions of justice and their ability to reform themselves, as well as his profound optimism about the steady, if sometimes failed realizations, of equal justice for all Americans.
The group then met with state and municipal legal experts: Judge Carolina Lamas from the Fourth District of the Minnesota State Courts, Mary Moriarty, the Chief Public Defender of Hennepin County, and Justin Perl, Litigation Director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. The panel had already been “introduced” by Judge Davis earlier that day, when he had spoken of the state court system as “the heart and soul of our judicial system.”
Judge Lamas opened by debunking the “villain-hero” dichotomy so prevalent in our popular culture; she’d met too many offenders who’d themselves been abused. Though his organization works only with civil cases, offering free legal representation to people with low incomes and disabilities, as well as seniors in need, Perl emphasized the overlap between civil and criminal justice. He noted, for example, the ways a minor financial mishap can frequently lead to being labeled a “criminal,” with lifelong implications.
Chief Defender Moriarty spoke powerfully about the kinds of trauma so many of her clients had experienced. Because she’d found that “hurt people hurt people,” Moriarty now routinely assigns a social worker to each of her cases. The group openly explored sentencing laws, racial disparities in the prisons, and the need to offer anti-bias training throughout the system, from juries to judges. It was a robust two-hour conversation, and the fellows witnessed a group of attorneys uniformly committed to changing the system to ensure equal legal justice for all.
* This report was co-authored by Barry Cytron and Marty Stortz