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From its earliest days, the Legal Rights Center (LRC) has been a major community asset, representing low-income clients, particularly people of color, in criminal defense cases. The organization’s focus is Hennepin County and its priority is juveniles. In recent years, restorative justice has become an important component. As LRC celebrates its 50th year, we turned to executive director Michael Friedman to learn more about the center’s evolution. Friedman, who has served for 15 years — as long as the center’s founder, the late Doug Hall — will step down in July. No replacement has yet been named.

Q: Can you talk about why and how the Legal Rights Center came to be?

A: The Legal Rights Center (legalrightscenter.org) formally came into existence in 1970. The recognized founders are Clyde and Peggy Bellecourt, who were with the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Syl and Gwen Davis of The Way [a north Minneapolis community center] along with Minneapolis labor attorney Doug Hall. Clyde Bellecourt was a member of the board until last year. The original funding came from local law firms and a lot of that was organized by Peter Dorsey of the Dorsey Whitney firm. At that time, there was no public defenders organization at the trial level. There was a right to a lawyer, so the judge would appoint private lawyers, and there was a lot of dissatisfaction about whether the lawyers were giving defendants appropriate attention. The absolute distinctive feature of the center is that it is not just attorneys but community workers, now called community advocates. They do all the functions of legal support. That includes case investigation and helping clients access community resources, such as treatment or cultural programs, which could serve as the terms of probation or the conditions for dismissal. That brought the community into the cases.

Q: How does the community advocate program make a difference from a typical legal defense?

A: The community is taking ownership — trying to solve the problems in the community, rather than it being imposed from outside and being perceived as hostile. With all the disparities and historical experience, there is tremendous distrust of the justice system by communities of color. Our advocates serve by helping the clients feel supported and also help our attorney better understand our clients’ experience.

Q: Who are some of the prominent people whose careers included the Legal Rights Center?

A: Keith Ellison was our executive director for five years in the 1990s, after which he became a state legislator, a congressperson and now Minnesota’s attorney general. One of our first attorneys was Michael Davis, who became a state judge, then a U.S. district judge and then chief U.S. district judge in Minnesota. Pamela Alexander began her career at the center and was a longtime judge in Hennepin County. Other people well known in the legal profession who were associated with the center include William McGee, later Hennepin County chief public defender; attorneys James Krieger, Trudell Guerue Jr. and Jerod Peterson and community advocates Willie Mae Dixon, Mary Jane Wilson and Fred “Sonny” Anderson Jr. Twenty years from now, some of our current attorneys and community advocates will be similarly recognized as prominent.

Q: How successful is the Legal Rights Center in court?

A: Our reputation is based on the absolute willingness and interest to take anything to trial when that’s what the client wants. In 2019, 47% of our adult cases and 81% of our juvenile cases did not end in conviction. We fully prepared trials in 23% of our cases and argued in evidence hearings in 30% of our cases, which are off the chart numbers for a public defense organization. Some of that is because clients seek us out. Some of it is because public defenders often have pressures from caseloads that we don’t have. Our advocates and attorneys are able to communicate with clients in a way that inspires them to keep coming back to court to fight their charges. That can lead prosecutors to drop their plea offers and just dismiss their case.

Q: The Legal Rights Center has been involved in restorative justice. Can you tell us about that?

A: Over the years, the Legal Rights Center developed expertise in restorative justice [a way of rehabilitating offenders by reconciling victims with the community at large]. We innovated and adapted it for school suspensions and expulsions with the idea that we would stop so many cases from being referred from schools for prosecution. The program has expanded rapidly across the metro.

Q: How many cases do you handle, what’s your annual budget and where do the funds come from?

A: We do roughly 400 cases and 125 restorative cases a year. The budget in 2020 is $1,277,500. The state public defense board grants us about $550,000. We have two state Office of Justice program grants, totaling about $140,000, which comes from federal sources. We get another $200,000 from school districts and county contracts for restorative justice programs. The Robins Kaplan law firm donates two attorneys to our staff. We also receive several grants from other law firms, the Hennepin Bar Association, Thomson Reuters and the Otto Bremer Trust.

Q: What role is the center playing in the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: Community advocates are helping find housing resources, which is sometimes required for probation. We helped push for workhouse release in some places. We are supporting the lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota against the state Department of Corrections for failure to have a means to appropriately protect prisoners medically. With the ACLU, we also urged the department to not block visitation for youth in their licensed facilities. It’s led to the issuance of a new and reasonable visitors policy.