Written by Sabrina Nur
15 minute read
After starting my journey with Oyate Hotanin in the fall of 2021, I sat down with Laura LaBlanc, one of the founding members of IN Equality, a Saint Paul-based community group seeking to transform criminal justice and build a coalition of those with firsthand experience with the criminal justice system. Alongside LaBlanc in the early 2000 battle to make it visible that the criminal justice system is the culprit in harming many people were Melvin Carter Jr, Damon Drake, Russel Balenger, David Stark, Long Vang, Eva Song Margolis, and Joanna Lowry. LaBlanc describes IN Equality as a collaborative community leadership team. IN Equality is committed to fostering conversations and partnerships that aim to create a criminal justice system that solves human problems, not simply punish individuals. IN Equality formally came together in 2015, but the stories of those involved and the work they were doing goes back to the mid-1990s.
At the time, there was a common myth about criminal justice creating public safety. A myth about who benefited from that version of public safety.
The JDAI Table:
Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, a community voice, was elected in 2005. She asked the county to create a table to address what at the time was called Disproportionate Minority Confinement (DMC). In 2005, thanks to Commissioner Toni Carter, LaBlanc and her peers now had a place to speak. There was a legal foundation for what they had been trying to address. The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) table was created that same year. The Annie E. Casey Foundation lit the fire under juvenile detention reform around the country. Their model was using data to examine why children were being detained and use the data to create other pathways. Their model of reform is what Ramsey County chose to take on. LaBlanc recalls being asked by the director of corrections her thoughts on the model; she told them, being somewhat skeptical of national experts, it was something; it was good enough. The Annie E. Casey Foundation proved itself to be pivotal in making a case that the overuse of detention was a national crisis. “This lens provided the push we needed locally to do the hard work of changing our practices and policies across intertwined but independent systems,” said LaBlanc.
In the 1990s too many youths were funneled into detention and criminal justice procedures, all under the guise of helping them get services through the court. When Ramsey County chose to go down the path of reforming juvenile justice in 2005, the first step was to have the Burns Institute do a readiness assessment. The Burns Institute facilitates a collaborative environment where community and system folk work together through shared values, using qualitative and quantitative data to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity. The Burns Institute was to determine whether Ramsey County was ready for this reform. The Readiness Assessment set the stage for establishing the partnerships and opening the frank conversation necessary to take on this important challenge.
Dade & Cook County:
The first jurisdictions Annie E. Casey foundation assisted were Cook County in Chicago and Dade County in Miami. LaBlanc said she was shocked because they were not counties she viewed as progressive but they implemented reforms years earlier than Ramsey County had. She soon learned through site visits to these other efforts how Dade and Cook County were in deep detaining so many youths, they were facing lawsuits and budget crises. It is important to understand detention is a lock-up used prior to a conviction. Detention centers hold children that haven’t been convicted of crimes. LaBlanc spoke candidly when she said, “If that is my daughter, it would be traumatic, alarming, and overwhelming if she had to be anywhere against her will during the years I was raising her. That would have been more than I could bear. So, a child in detention over the weekend or even overnight feels terrifying to me as a mother. But often it was not just a day or a weekend: sometimes children were held twenty days, sixty days, or ninety days and it wasn’t clear what they were there for and why they were being held”.
Cook County had a facility that was built to house four hundred children per night but instead housed eight hundred. The county board was looking at building a new facility. The question was asked, instead of building a new five-million-dollar facility, could fewer kids be detained? This created Cook County’s choice to examine whether they were holding too many kids a night. They were. When the new director took over, there were no records that mentioned the identity of the eight hundred kids. The director went to every child and gave them a postcard. He asked them to write down who they were, why they were in there and what was happening. This is how he assessed what was going on in that facility.
Frustration with JDAI:
By 2008, the community hit a big frustration point, because they’d spent thousands of hours on the committee. Nothing looked different from the point of view of the children, families, or adults entering the system. The attitude LaBlanc and her peers were met with at the JDAI table when they raised the observation that the system was based on structural racism was, “No, there is no racism, we are doing the best we can with the kids that are struggling and that’s not racism. We’ve got to do it; these poor kids are being let down by their families.” This was the table’s energy. The finger was being pointed at the family or the community. Rarely would the finger be pointed inside the system and when officials did, they never pointed at their own entity within the system.
At the time, no public officials or public employees saw racial disparities within their own entities. It was always somebody else’s responsibility. Melvin Carter Jr, founder of Save Our Sons and retired St. Paul Police Sergeant, and LaBlanc hit a tipping point where they said to themselves, “We can’t keep doing all these committee hours that don’t do anything.” So, they called Tshaka Barrows from the Burns Institute. They went to Burns Institute because LaBlanc and Melvin Carter saw Burns Institute researchers as capable and sharp. They understood racism. The battle that LaBlanc and her peers were up against was racism not being acknowledged and a lack of urgency to interrupt the harm being done to the black and brown children in our detention center. The community needed change urgently and the system was overly cautious. So LaBlanc and Carter went to Barrows and asked him what they could do with this situation. He gave them some technical assistance that set them on their course. He told them they needed to create an organization. Barrows also told them they needed to create a small committee of like-minded people who wanted to be a force for change. He told them to pick low-hanging fruit. What was a battle they could take on that they could win so that the system couldn’t ignore them?
Juvenile Justice Reform Committee (JJRC):
In 2008, Laura, Melvin, and other community leaders formed the Juvenile Justice Reform Committee (JJRC). The advice they received from Burns Institute was they should try to look like a government committee. The thinking being, that if you can look like a formal committee, government entities will respond to you when you send a letter. When you ask all the tough questions in this formal way, they are more likely to answer than if individuals from the community call. LaBlanc recalls, however, that they were unable to hide in a county the size of Ramsey. They couldn’t pretend they were a government task force, they had established relationships with too many system representatives. What they did, however, was gather people at the community level. They told them they needed to organize and what they were up against.
Summer of 2008, LaBlanc and her peers organized, and Barrows came to town and did a presentation for the community. The presentation was on the history of the juvenile justice system and how racially motivated the system has always been. It was a wake-up call for them. The community had gotten used to these practices as though they were normal. After that meeting, the people who wanted to stay and organize were invited to a future meeting. Regular meetings and discussions on how to assert the community voice began. They chose their first battle. An official in a key position for juvenile corrections was retiring. The JJRC chose this focus as their first campaign, seeing it would be a game-changer to get someone selected who wanted to change the system. They had a shot at having one of the system heads on their side. The JJRC was effective in creating the conditions for getting Michael Belton selected as the Director of Juvenile Corrections in Ramsey County. Belton was a career system guy working toward correcting racial disparity, he demonstrated he was a system representative who understood and acknowledged the harm being done by the system.
Once Belton was in this role, the JDAI table managed to put a Risk Assessment Inventory (RAI) at the door of detention. Before the RAI was instituted, a child who police wanted to put in detention would be put there with no assessment taken on whether they needed to be there. Once the RAI was in place, children would get turned away from detention. A game-changer. The police and the county attorney were not too pleased. Prior to the RAI, anybody who got dropped off was locked up. Ramsey County was locking up ninety to a hundred children a night. Three thousand children a year, many of who had not even committed a crime, were going through this experience, and it was the full prison experience: cement block cells, iron doors, long hours of isolation, and, at the time, we were still strip-searching children as they arrived.
By the time 2015 came around, the JJRC had some important victories. They had worked with the JDAI partners to significantly reduce the number of children locked up and juvenile crime wasn’t going up. This pushed back against the fear narrative that is used to this day to justify why so many people are being locked up. We can see, however, that not locking people up does not mean an increase in crime. Core policy changes like the RAI and helping children stay with their parents and guardians while getting them in front of judges faster were in place. Prior to a conviction, fewer children were being held in detention.
Unfortunately, the gains that they had were being fought against so now they were stuck playing defense. They wanted to be on the offense, fighting for further change. The JDAI table was still important because County Attorney John Choi, behind the scenes, was trying to build a “receiving center.” He got pushed back at the table. He was trying to build a back-door detention center. LaBlanc recalls, “I remember raising my hand, and it’s a very public setting, judges were listening, commissioners were listening. I said, ‘John, are the kids going to your receiving center in the back of a police car? That sounds like an arrest to me and from the child’s point of view, that sounds like an arrest.’” They were able to destabilize the plan because John Choi had made his plan visible to the table. JJRC still was concerned that he had still spent a year developing his plan when he could have been working on changes that would benefit youth instead of harming them. LaBlanc and her peers were getting frustrated and rightfully so. From their point of view, they shouldn’t have had to be playing defense. If everyone at the JDAI table wanted reform, they all should have been playing offense together.
In 2015, the stagnation at the table was in conflict while the need to organize outside the JDAI table felt urgent. Damon Drake sent a letter resigning from the JDAI table. In his resignation letter, he addressed several of the concerns he had about the table. He said, “This is my official notice that I am stepping away from the JDAI table. At this point, there is no community engagement, involvement, and no community influence. This has become a table exclusively for the voice of systems folks and their nonprofit counterparts. I feel that the JDAI table has become political theater.” That’s just the beginning of Drake’s resignation letter which goes into detail over three and a half pages. He mentions gratitude for those he called sincere and committed champions of the work, Commissioner Toni Carter and Michael Belton.
LaBlanc says, “Our frustration was building, Ferguson was happening, and it wasn’t a wakeup call for us, we couldn’t unsee what had been going on around us for decades, but suddenly it wasn’t lonely anymore. It’s like we were these crazy individuals just saying, ‘there’s a problem here!’ Now there was a movement, Black Lives Matter, and there was a Department of Justice investigation that came out with a quick report and showed how many things were wrong with how they were handling the Black community in Ferguson; how the community members were pawns in the criminal justice system, documenting that court fees were used as a significant income source to the county.” LaBlanc mentions the fatal shooting of the eighteen-year-old boy Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, 2014 by white police officer Darren Wilson and the subsequent March 4, 2015 report that was published by the Department of Justice entitled, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.”
It was the tenth anniversary of the JDAI table as well in 2015. Commissioner Carter is the force behind this table and is the reason why most people kept showing up. For the anniversary stakeholder meeting, twenty minutes each were given to corrections, the County Attorney’s office, the bench, and the police. All these public officials got to do a presentation about what they had done in ten years to address racial disparities. From the community’s point of view, the ten-year anniversary was just a celebration of fruitless things they did. LaBlanc and her peers raised their hands at the end of that and asked where the community report was. They stated that they didn’t think the community was as happy with the systems as the officials seemed to be about themselves. Drake and LaBlanc spoke with Commissioner Carter and asked if they created a community report, could they present it? Could she give them time on her next agenda?
Commissioner Carter gave them the whole one hour and thirty minutes of the next meeting to do their presentation. That’s when they started strategizing and organizing again. They wanted to have an organized approach; they didn’t want it to be just the seven of them making the community statement. Though they shared an important point of view that was not showing up at the table, the community was bigger than the seven of them. They felt they needed to present their report that way. So, they created an interview project design in 2015 and crafted an interview guide.
LaBlanc describes the experience of conducting these interviews as deeply moving. At that point, she realized that this was work she was embracing for the next decade. She spoke with people who she didn’t expect would necessarily trust her. In 2015, LaBlanc had twenty years of community activism under her belt and she knew people didn’t trust the system. She worked with Hmong families, Indigenous families, and African American families since the eighties and nineties and was married into a large Dakota family. LaBlanc said, “I often felt like a compassionate witness to something that was so much bigger and so much more complex than I was. Here I am as a white person asking people to answer questions about how they are experiencing the criminal justice system and I just expected them not to want to talk to me. It was extremely moving to me that people wanted to talk, they wanted to tell their stories.”
LaBlanc, alongside her peers Long Vang, Damon Drake, David Stark, Russel Balenger, Eva Song Margolis, Joana Lowry, and others, completed seventy-seven interviews over three months in St. Paul within the Indigenous, African Americans, and Hmong communities. Balenger and LaBlanc wrote up a report that captured people’s fears and grave disappointment in criminal justice practices within Ramsey County and beyond the Ferguson outrage. This is when IN Equality was born. They started pursuing funding because they’d learned that organizing needed infrastructure and support or it would fall to the wayside. They wanted the County to pay for this work, but at the same time, they knew they needed to maintain their independence. At any point down the road they were in a predictable place of conflict with the county, it was important the county didn’t have the power to replace them. While they continued the conversations in the community and brought community members to the JDAI table, it wasn’t until 2017, two years later, that IN Equality started receiving funding.
IN Equality hosts an annual event called Flower Power. It is a day that organically emerged from an idea LaBlanc had in the aftermath of the fatal shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. It is a day of honoring all those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system in any way, and creating a healing space for the community, creating the opportunity to be good relatives to every living being. The event happens once a year, always on the first Saturday in August, and goes from sunrise to sunset. The community is invited and we ask them to bring us a bouquet of flowers if they can. Artists in collaboration with the community create flower art installations. We have performances, food, healing circles, and community building.
The journey from several individuals coming together, to creating the JJRC to the birth of IN Equality spanned over a decade. It puts into perspective how change doesn’t come fast or easy. It takes dedication, consistency, and patience. In having conversations like these, not only have I learned so much relevant history about the community I live and work in, it has also made me have a deeper appreciation and respect for all the elders who are living history.