The death of George Floyd by the hands of four Minneapolis police officers nearly two months ago has caused many to reflect on the world in which they live. In Olmsted County, leaders in the criminal justice system are no exception.
On Tuesday, the Olmsted County Justice Council met to discuss how Floyd's death impacted those in the criminal justice system in the county.
“The impact on our office from the George Floyd murder has been fairly significant,” said Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem. “It has caused all of us — me in particular — to really try to look back and really examine every single thing we’ve done, every small decision that we make. We are doing a lot of soul searching.”
The justice council is made up of more than a dozen members from the city and county and includes court staff, law enforcement, county commissioners and staff.
Ostrem said his office is in the process of reviewing past cases from charging all the way to sentencing and expungement. The review is not limited to criminal cases, but encompasses all the work the office does, including child or adult protection cases. That work comes at the same time court functions are ramping back up to deal with the backlog of cases that has accumulated during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
As part of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association Board of Directors, Ostrem told the council that the board supported potential legislation that would have the Minnesota Attorney General's Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension handle the prosecution and investigation of law enforcement-involved deaths.
For Travis Gransee, director of Olmsted County Community Corrections, the death of Floyd and the protests and civil unrest that followed were about more than just law enforcement.
"This is about more than law enforcement. It's about more than murder. It's about a system, the justice system, needing to change," he said. "Our system isn't broken. It is working exactly as it was intended to. I think it's our job is to break the system and create those changes that we find necessary."
Gransee said community corrections, also known as probation, is reviewing its own data to make sure they are not doing anything to contribute to the parts of the system that need to change.
"We’ve all got work to do, and we are ready to do it," he said.
It's not only the murder of Floyd that has spurred changes. The pandemic, which brought court functions to a crawl for months, has also caused those who work in the criminal justice field to question the former status quo.
Attorney Michael Walters, of the Olmsted County Bar Association, said leaders from the state's public defender office have been questioning arrests — both unlawful arrests and those that are lawful but unnecessary.
"When I think about the George Floyd murder, that really comes to mind," he said. "I view that not only as a particularly brutal arrest, but an arrest a lot of police officers that I know might not have made. They might have chosen to handle that as a summons rather than an arrest."
Joseph Bueltel, assistant chief judge of the Third Judicial District, echoed Walters' sentiment.
"One of the benefits of the COVID experience, as a society, we are figuring out who really needs to be arrested, who really needs to sit in jail, and what's the right level of charges," he said. "We are making some headway on some of those questions that maybe are a little deeper that do implicate racial basis in our system that we can work on."