MINNEAPOLIS — Speaking to a conference room full of criminal justice experts from across the country, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said that Minnesota has work to do to address inequities in the state criminal justice system.

Speaking at the Minnesota Justice Research Center's "Re-imagining Justice" conference in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday, Oct 30, Walz said Minnesota is one of several states that spends more on criminal justice annually than on higher education.

"You're losing when you get to that point," he told the crowd.

Particularly, Walz said the inequity of justice among Minnesotans of color is "glaring" and systematic, with a lack of affordable housing, unequal educational opportunities, inaccessible mental health care and more all contributing to today's disproportionate incarceration rates of Minnesotans of color. As the cycle continues, Walz said the system leads to "racial and economic stratification," which he said has deepened in Minnesota over the years.

"It's not just that (Minnesotans of color are) negotiating a system that doesn't work for them," Walz said. "They're negotiating a system that was designed to not work for them."

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As of July 2019, 36.9% of Minnesota's overall prison population was black, and 8.8% American Indian, compared to 51.3% white. The state's overall population, however, is less than 7% black and 1.4% American Indian, according to the Census. White residents make up the vast majority of Minnesota's population at 84.1%, but just barely over half of the state's prison population.

Walz said he is working to address these disparities. His first executive order after taking office was to establish the Minnesota Council on Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, and in preparation for a bonding year, he said his administration is inspecting bonding inequities. And for the first time in state history, Walz said the majority of the state's judicial selection board are women and people of color in an effort to better reflect Minnesota's general population.

Other speakers at the forum had other ideas to overhaul the criminal justice system. Justin Terrell, the executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, suggested reparations as a way to address racial bias in the system.

"I'm not talking about cutting a check," Terrell said, but changes to a system that he said was designed to target black Americans.

"If we made some decisions to expand the white middle class in the 1950s, we have to make some decisions to expand the black middle class in the 2020s," he said.

Abby Honold, an advocate for sexual assault survivors, said that the criminal justice system also does not work for victims of crime, and that assumptions are made about what survivors want to see from the system.

What survivors most want, she said, is not always to see their perpetrators behind bars. Oftentimes they'd prefer those resources to instead be put toward rehabilitation, or better economic opportunities or mental health accessibility — things shown to help prevent future perpetrators from committing crimes like the ones they've survived.