Seven-Year Itch

Critics say Minnesota's vaunted effort to make courts fairer is all talk and no action.

In the fall of 1996 Roel Alanis, a 48-year-old Mexican immigrant, was accused of selling drugs to a Crookston teenager. The first time he appeared in court Alanis, who has a sixth-grade education and a limited grasp of English, was given an interpreter but not an attorney. During the course of the hearing, he admitted to being guilty of a traffic violation and possession of a small amount of marijuana, but denied selling narcotics to a minor. When the prosecuting attorney made what appeared to be a reasonable offer (six months in a state-run boot camp for a plea to second-degree possession of a controlled substance), he accepted.

Within a few weeks, however, he discovered that the deal had gone sour. As Alanis sat in Stillwater Prison awaiting transfer to the Willow Creek Boot Camp, agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service paid him a visit. They told him that since he was not a U.S. citizen, he'd be spending four-and-a-half years at the Faribault state prison, rather than six months in boot camp. And at the end of his sentence, he'd be deported.

The change was a consequence of a little-noticed wrinkle in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996. The federal law expanded the list of offenses for which aliens will be deported to include domestic assault, possession of a gun, fraud, any kind of sexual offense, and so-called "enhanceable" crimes such as drug convictions.

Alanis wasn't the only criminal defendant to get the news too late. According to Kyle White, the attorney who is appealing his case to the state Supreme Court, Minnesota courts have recently been seeing a dramatic increase in cases like Alanis's. The problem, White claims, could be relatively easy to fix: All it would take is for Minnesota courts to give immigrants information about the law in their language. The reason that's not happening, White contends, is the failure of a highly publicized effort to address racial bias in the state's courts.

In 1990, the Minnesota Legislature and state Supreme Court ordered an investigation into racial bias in Minnesota's judicial system. Then-Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed a Racial Bias Task Force comprised of judges, attorneys, cops, university professors, and private citizens, often eliciting emotionally charged testimony.

After three years, the group released a 200-some-page report detailing what it called "pervasive" bias in all branches of the judicial system. Among other things, it found that disproportionate numbers of minorities are charged with crimes compared to whites; that people of color are less likely than whites to have access to lawyers in civil cases; that few employers take "adequate" steps to recruit, promote, and retain minority attorneys; that children from communities of color are "grossly" overrepresented in the foster-care system; and that African Americans make up 65 percent of the people detained in jails, while the majority of white arrestees are allowed out on bail.

The task force also drafted a list of 147 recommendations. Among other things, it said the courts should collect accurate race-specific data on the juvenile justice system (where no such data currently exist); examine the bail-setting process for potential bias; and revamp forfeiture laws. A 28-member "Implementation Committee on Multicultural Diversity and Racial Fairness in the Courts," chaired by Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, was formed to make sure the recommendations didn't gather dust.

Yet, some observers claim, that's exactly what has happened. With two exceptions, none of the task force's 147 recommendations have been implemented in the four years since the report was released. As a result, a growing number of critics--including some of the task-force members themselves--contend the effort has become all talk and no action.

"The [1993] report confirmed everybody's worst fears," says Keith Ellison, director of Minneapolis's Legal Rights Center. "But the implementation has not happened. It seems as though it's been ignored. I think if they did [another] report in 2000, it wouldn't show many changes within the system."

White, the lawyer for Alanis, agrees. He says that while he understands the difficulties in changing an entire institution, the task force and its implementation committee should have been able to address smaller, more manageable problems like the one that tripped up his client. "In Wisconsin as well as 10 other states," says White, "the Rules of Criminal Procedure have been amended to include requiring the courts to warn of potential immigration consequences before accepting a guilty plea. There's no good reason [the task force] hasn't done anything about this."

Ramsey County District Court Judge Salvador Rosas, a member of the body's subcommittee in charge of interpreter programming, says his group has been "very responsive" to concerns like White's. Yet, he says, he too is worried about an dearth of results from the task force's efforts. "Bias in the judicial system is still a significant problem," he says, "and people's constitutional rights are still being violated on a daily basis."

Among his worries, says Rosas, are the difficulties faced by non-English-speaking defendants. "I've heard horror stories about people in rural areas being forced to rely on relatives or the neighbor down the block to act as their court interpreters," he says. In one district court, he adds, a Spanish-speaking police officer has been used as a court interpreter despite repeated warnings about his conflict of interest. These kinds of situations are "inexcusable," says Rosas, and have prompted him to push for a standardized program to test, train, and certify interpreters for the entire state.

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