Ramsey County Attorney John Choi became the first Korean American county prosecutor in the U.S. in 2011. Since then he has quietly developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most reform-minded prosecutors. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Sahan Journal reported, wrote, and produced this piece in collaboration with The Appeal, a national nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal legal system.

When leaders in Ramsey County considered building a new youth jail in 2016, residents responded with outrage.

“The community showed up in a very angry way,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, recounting a public hearing about the project. “All the people that were there shut it down.”

In 2011, Choi became the first Korean American county prosecutor in the U.S. Since then, Choi, whose jurisdiction includes St. Paul and nearby communities, has quietly developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most reform-minded prosecutors. 

Choi spent the years leading up to the child jail showdown by collaborating with county officials and community leaders. The goal was to decrease youth incarceration rates by offering diversion programs to kids who ended up in court. And it was working: At Boys Totem Town, a jail in St. Paul’s Battle Creek neighborhood, a facility built for 36 boys held just six in its final year. 

Community members in 2019 successfully pushed the county to close Boys Totem Town for good. Choi says the fight over Boys Totem Town sparked a local movement to transform the county’s criminal legal system, which polices and incarcerates Black and Native people at disproportionately higher rates than white people. Minneapolis, in Hennepin County, may have garnered significantly more headlines since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. But St. Paul and Ramsey County have made more strides toward transforming its criminal legal system.

“I believe that the solutions are embedded in our community, especially the aspect of our community that has been the most impacted by violence, the most impacted by mass incarceration,” Choi said. The criminal justice system, he added, needs “to engage those communities to be a part of the solution. And that’s the conversation that we’ve been having for the past three years.”

Since the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent uprising, the coalition that formed to close Boys Totem Town has succeeded in its push for significant legal reforms in Minnesota’s second most populous county (after Hennepin). Choi has embraced reforms including an effort to reduce the use of cash bail and a policy to not prosecute most felonies that arise from “pretextual traffic stops”—when a cop pulls someone over for a small driving infraction and uses that stop as an excuse to search or detain them. Studies have found that pretextual traffic-stops are disproportionately deployed against people of color, and civil rights groups maintain that such stops violate Fourth Amendment bans on “unreasonable searches.” 

The Ramsey County Commission has agreed with these changes. Commissioners recently approved a plan for unarmed, community-based responders to address some situations that would normally be handled by police. It’s a move that could make a difference for thousands of people who might otherwise face arrest. 

But not all of those reforms have sailed through without opposition.

At first, “nobody complained about any of this,” Choi told Sahan Journal and The Appeal. “In fact, it was celebrated.” But that’s starting to change. “Now it’s being blamed for a whole bunch of things.”

Despite the county’s reputation as a progressive stronghold, Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and other major state law-enforcement groups have fought Choi’s attempts to change policing in Saint Paul and surrounding communities like Maplewood, Roseville, and New Brighton. In fact, Fletcher has argued in media appearances and state legislature testimony that more children should be jailed. And he has ordered his deputies not to comply with Choi’s ban on pretextual stops.

“This is a crisis and you can say the juvenile justice system failure is a crisis,” Fletcher told KSTP in September. “If we don’t restore those 40 to 50 beds for these juveniles, then we are going to continue on the cycle that we’re at.”

Now the county is taking an even bigger step toward reshaping policing, and it’s unclear how Fletcher and the state’s powerful police unions will react.

Not every 911 call needs a police response

In November, the county approved $13.2 million to fund alternative ways of handling some 911 calls that would typically be dealt with by police. Dubbed the Appropriate Responses Initiative, the plan could put Ramsey County on the leading edge of new approaches to public safety. 

While many jurisdictions in the U.S. send mental health professionals or social workers to 911 calls, this plan would remove police entirely from certain situations. Officials hope to revamp how the county responds to mental health crises, homelessness, and a range of non-emergency calls, for example.

“We know there is a disproportionate number of Black and American Indian individuals that are engaged with the criminal justice system,” Nancie Pass, the Ramsey County Emergency Communication Center director, said in a presentation to commissioners on November 9. Black residents in Ramsey County are almost 13 times more likely to be admitted to prison compared to white people; Native residents are about 12 times more likely.  

“Our goal with this initiative is to connect people with community services before the need to engage with traditional responders, and to connect them with the most appropriate resource to meet their need,” Pass added.

The initiative includes three models of alternative responses. The first is co-response, in which both police and professionals from other government agencies, such as mental health care providers, respond to emergencies. The county is already using this approach during limited hours in some areas.

Currently, police request a co-responder when they think they need it. Under the new initiative, a 911 dispatcher will make the choice based on information from the callers themselves. Pass’s presentation to the board included hypothetical scenarios that could be handled by co-responders, including domestic violence calls and suicide attempts.

“We can’t be a rubber stamp to what the police want. We have to be an independent actor willing to hold police accountable.”

Ramsey county attorney john choi

But the plan also enables responses that don’t involve police at all.

For 911 calls where there’s no threat of violence—like panhandling, someone living in a car, or a welfare check (a visit to a person’s home to make sure they’re OK)—dispatchers could send public health or social workers without police. And in other cases, such as noise complaints, someone from a community-based organization could respond, avoiding government intervention altogether. 

A study that Ramsey County completed in October found comparable programs with “non-law enforcement dispatchable resources that respond to more than just mental health related calls” in just four U.S. cities: Eugene, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; Houston, Texas; and Olympia, Washington.

This could make a difference for thousands of people in Ramsey County who would otherwise interact with police each year. And the difference could be greater for Black and brown people, who are more likely to be face arrest while interacting with the police. In November alone, police made nearly 800 welfare checks and responded to about 500 noise complaints. And out of about 79,000 911 calls, more than half were non-emergencies, according to county data.

“We can’t be a rubber stamp to what the police want. We have to be an independent actor willing to hold police accountable,” Choi said. “We have to work towards a more just way of responding to incidents and finding justice, safety, and wellness for everybody.”

Dr. Raj Sethuraju poses for a photo inside the Midtown Exchange building on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Dr. Raj Sethuraju, a criminal justice professor at the Brooklyn Park campus of Metropolitan State University, works closely with Choi and has helped develop the Appropriate Responders Initiative. 

“We practice mass punishment, mass incarceration, and mass surveillance,” Sethuraju said, “versus trusting humanity, right, breaking the barriers, so that human beings can flourish in our community.”

Sethuraju conducts restorative justice circles, which bring together victims and people who committed crimes for a discussion on healing. The county utilizes feedback from restorative justice circles when developing new policies. 

“We’ve been talking about all of the challenges, all of the barriers, all of the ways our work can be impactful,” Sethuraju said. Choi called the initiative a “great opportunity” to seek truth and address harm in a new way that engages the community. 

At a time when the role of police is up for debate across the country, a decade of changes in Ramsey County have laid the groundwork for this transformation.

Effective prosecution doesn’t always mean incarceration

Under Choi’s leadership, the Ramsey County Attorney’s office has made strides in reducing the impact of the criminal justice system:

  • The number of people sent to prison in Ramsey County decreased by 47 percent between 2013 and 2019 from 1,226 to 652.
  • For youth, there was an even steeper decline: The number of people aged 16 to 25 sent to prison decreased by two-thirds, from 317 to 112, between 2010 and 2019.
  • At the same time, the County Attorney’s Office also brought down the number of people on probation by nearly a quarter—from 16,711 to 12,787.
  • The County Attorney’s Office also eliminated $1 million in fines against defendants.

Under Choi’s leadership, the Ramsey County Attorney’s office has made strides in reducing the impact of the criminal justice system. The number of people sent to prison in Ramsey County decreased by 47 percent between 2013 and 2019.

Choi told Sahan Journal and The Appeal he attributes that change in part to creating an office culture in which prosecutors aren’t judged by the number of convictions they land.

The racial disparities are “still way too high,” Choi said. “But all the numbers went down. It wasn’t like one group benefited more during this reduction period.”

More recent reforms could change policing and drive down incarceration even further. In September, Choi announced he won’t prosecute most felonies that result from pretextual traffic stops.

And in September 2020, Choi partnered with the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit bail fund, to work toward eliminating the cash bail system, which disproportionately subjects Black and brown people to pretrial incarceration. Cash bail is a court-determined amount used to guarantee a defendant will return for a hearing, rather than wait in jail.

“Oftentimes, people who are under detention have not been adjudicated guilty,” said Elizer Darris, co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund. “The harm is that each day that goes by, you’re not able to go to work, you’re not able to contribute to the family.”

Darris, Choi, and other county officials and stakeholders have been examining alternatives to cash bail, including a pretrial risk assessment tool to determine whether someone can be safely released without bail before trial. Critics of pretrial risk assessments have alleged that such tools are racially biased and poor predictors of pretrial misconduct. Darris described the reform process as “slow moving.” But he noted that this is necessary in order to include people like him who have experienced incarceration and other aspects of the criminal legal system.

“Part of the shift that’s happening is a lot of us who are directly impacted who have gone through a lot of these systems are now becoming involved with helping to shape and craft the outcomes,” Darris said.

A sheriff appeals to law and order 

Efforts like these could stall if opposition from Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher gains traction. Fletcher, who likes to live stream his patrols, has spoken against the Boys Totem Town closure and other reforms. In September, Fletcher called for a return to jailing Ramsey County’s children, and said he plans to propose an initiative concerning youth crime to state lawmakers.

“I have talked with dozens of parents who have made it clear: The status quo is not working. There are no consequences, no resources, and no support,” Fletcher said in a September statement announcing the initiative. “Youth are frequently released from custody only to repeat the same dangerous and criminal behavior.”

Fletcher did not respond to a request for comment from Sahan Journal and The Appeal.

Choi, however, disagrees. “What’s driving a lot of the crime and the repetitive nature of youth who are coming back in the system is a much more complicated thing that relates really specifically to the pandemic,” Choi said. “It relates to other things that are happening in a community.”

Choi added that incarcerating youth only perpetuates the cycle. “Young people end up going deep, deep into the system, and they can never get out,” he said. 

Fletcher and other law enforcement officials testified before the Minnesota Senate in October at an “informational hearing on violent crime” in the Twin Cities. “I know a lot about juvenile crime,” Fletcher said. “Shooters start out as juvenile delinquents and they evolve through the system.” 

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher has argued that incarcerating youth contributes to public safety: “I know a lot about juvenile crime,” Fletcher says. “Shooters start out as juvenile delinquents and they evolve through the system.”

He added: “We need some type of location that we can stop the evolution of these children before they become shooters.”

Fletcher has also been a vocal opponent of Choi’s policy not to prosecute cases that stemmed from pretextual traffic stops. He has said his office will still conduct low-level traffic stops in defiance of the county attorney’s policy.

Other major law-enforcement leaders and groups, such as the statewide Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, have said Choi’s pretextual-stop ban endangered Ramsey County residents.

“Basically the county attorney just announced his office won’t uphold the law and won’t prosecute those who break it,” the group’s president, Brian Peters, told state lawmakers in October. “That’s absurd and a slap in the face to victims of crime.” 

In other cities where prosecutors have attempted to reform the criminal system— such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—local police departments, sheriffs, and police unions have fought bitterly against proposed police reforms.

But despite roadblocks from the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and others, reformers told Sahan Journal and The Appeal that they are still optimistic about getting the Appropriate Responders Initiative off the ground. Those involved with the plan say it could take at least another year before community-based responders actually hit the streets.

“It becomes more difficult, especially now, because we’re facing immense skepticism and criticism around some of the new justice reform efforts,” Choi said. “But we have to keep pushing forward in this space, because the alternative is to go back to the status quo.”

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

Anna Simonton is an editor and interim development director for The Appeal, a worker-led news outlet focused on the U.S. criminal legal system.