Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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As a student at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Jarvis Jones found that bar associations weren’t always receptive to the needs of attorneys of color. So he helped establish the Minnesota Minority Lawyers Association and served twice as its president. 

He went on to become the first African American president of the Hennepin County Bar Association and the Minnesota State Bar Association. As president of the state organization, Jones established a requirement that all lawyers must take continuing education classes on ethics and eliminating bias. 

“It’s always about what you do with those accomplishments,” Jones told Sahan Journal. “One of the things that isn’t surprising to most people of color is that the legal system needs to be diversified, and that’s an understatement. There was a lot of distrust, and still is, of lawyers.”

Jones, 63, is particularly concerned about findings from a two-year investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that were unveiled in April. They showed that the Minneapolis Police Department engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination.

Jones plans for public safety and accountability include internal reform of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. One of the ways he hopes to accomplish that is by creating working groups for different units of the office, such as juvenile justice and low-level offenses. The groups would be tasked with identifying data-based solutions to reform the justice system.

Jones worked as an attorney for more than 30 years and became a stock investor in 2016. He owned his own law firm focusing on insurance and commercial law, and also worked for a boutique firm that specialized in large-scale corporate civil cases. Jones also worked for the firm, Blackwell Igbanugo, which was one of the largest Black-owned law firms in the state until it dissolved in 2006.

Sahan Journal spoke with Jones to learn about his campaign. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What should people, especially immigrants and people of color, know about the Hennepin County attorney and how the role impacts them? What about young people going through either the juvenile justice process or child protection cases?

I believe people have a fundamental right to be safe on the streets, in their homes, churches, synagogues, and wherever else they practice their beliefs. At the same time we need to treat every individual in Hennepin County fairly and equally. There are some folks who say lock them up. That’s not the solution. Some people believe in spending more money. That’s not the solution. 

My message to people of color is you deserve safe streets whether you live in Minneapolis, Brooklyn Park, St. Louis Park, or Edina. My office will treat you with dignity and respect. If you’re the one who commits a crime, you’re going to be held accountable. But you’re going to be treated with dignity, respect, and held accountable for your actions. 

I grew up in inner city Chicago, so I understand what it means to have police officers who often feel like an occupying force in certain diverse communities. They don’t feel like they’re there to serve us. We often feel we’re all treated as suspects. The prosecutor should also be out there working to prevent and reduce crime in the community. I’m one of the few candidates who can identify and relate to many people in these diverse lenses. 

I have specific initiatives that talk about working with immigrants. One of the platform’s positions is that punishment should fit the crime. For example, you have two people who commit a certain type of misdemeanor. One is an immigrant, one isn’t. The non-immigrant might get possibly six months in jail. The immigrant might get six months too, but they could also be deported. That is not punishment that fits the crime.

We’re not going to give anyone a leg up, but we’re not going to give anyone a leg down. I don’t believe in tearing apart families particularly for certain misdemeanors and felonies. It’s a case-by-case basis, but I do not believe in wholesale deportation.

We’ve given up on a lot of our young people, particularly from diverse neighborhoods. We have to take a systemic look at how our young people are being charged. I believe in holding people accountable, young or otherwise. However, I think we’re over-criminalizing young people for a lot of stuff—petty crimes, having a marijuana joint on them. Why are they in the criminal system? 

How do you plan to address racial equity issues in prosecution?

I’m going to bring in the Vera Institute of Justice. This is a nonprofit organization well-respected around the country that looks at social justice issues in general, but one of its skills as a third-party is it goes into different prosecutors’ offices around the country and assesses all the policy, protocols, processes from A to Z to make sure they don’t have inadvertent, unintended bias. 

Secondly, I do not believe that we have adequate representation–even if I were to get elected. My office needs to reflect Hennepin County. One of my first priorities will be to hire excellent attorneys, with a focus on folks of color.

All the attorneys in my office, including myself, will go through bias training to make sure we’re trained and educated on dealing with these issues. We will also take an internal look at our policies and practices and look for disparate impact on different groups of people.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, do you plan to prosecute abortion cases in Hennepin County?

Short answer is no. The long answer is no.

How do you plan to address rising violent crime while also implementing criminal justice reform measures, since a lot of people think of it as one or the other?

That’s exactly why I’m running on safe streets and equal treatment for all. It’s a lie we keep telling ourselves and others that the prosecutor’s office alone can make the change. We’ve got to engage the other key stakeholders in the criminal justice system. That would include the public defender’s office, law enforcement, the judiciary, parole officers, certain community groups.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of programs around the country that are working, that are reducing crime. I plan to establish different working groups that are charged with looking at what’s working around the country and then implementing. Each one of these working committees will be required to put out a quarterly report. There’s a working committee dealing with juveniles, non-violent low-level crime, violent crime, and recidivism.

What roles should the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office play in reviewing and prosecuting officer-involved killings?

I plan to have an investigation unit in the Hennepin County office. It will be a walled-off unit of senior attorneys. And that unit will be charged with not just looking at law enforcement, it will be looking at all individual actors who act under the color of law in the criminal justice system. That includes prosecutors, public defenders, judges.

It’s misleading for people to think that law enforcement does what they do alone. Law enforcement does what it does, because the prosecutor allows it. The prosecutor does what it does, because the judges allow it. We need to look at our own house.

I like [Minnesota Attorney General] Keith Ellison, but we’re not going to hand it off to the attorney general’s office. That’s our responsibility. We’ll work with him, but we’re going to take up that charge because no one is above the law.

How will you vet police testimony and evidence in cases presented by Minneapolis police in light of the Jaleel Stallings case?

Under my plan, an officer who has perjured or engaged in some bad behavior, or made statements of bias that show a disregard for people of color will not testify, because I believe that goes against their credibility. If you have officers who, even amongst friends, are making racist statements, I cannot have confidence in that officer. 

A lot of times you don’t see people of color on juries. I will prohibit prosecutors in my office from striking people of color from the jury unless they have a legitimate and reasonable basis that has nothing to do with race, gender, sexual preference, etc.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.