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Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is among three U.S. prosecutors selected to participate in a pilot program to reduce racial inequalities in the criminal justice system by rethinking how and whom they charge.

The program will advise Choi’s office about how to minimize what factor a person’s criminal history plays in decisions to file criminal charges, seek incarceration only as a last-resort punishment and consider declining to prosecute low-level and nonviolent charges that directly target Black people.

“Our goal is to do better than the current system,” said Choi. “I think we can also improve public safety as well, if we can do the right types of interventions, working collaboratively with the community.”

The program is in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice, and will also include District Attorney’s offices in Suffolk County, Mass., and Michigan’s Ingham County.

The announcement comes in a moment of nationwide reflection on the faults of the criminal justice system, in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. Many change advocates say prosecutors must play an important role in creating meaningful change.

“When we launched this a year ago, we had no idea we’d be in this moment,” said Jamila Hodge, director of Vera’s Reshaping Prosecution program.

Hodge, a former prosecutor, has been working with Choi for a year, along with academics, formerly incarcerated people and other experts who helped develop the strategies. For the pilot program, Vera will analyze data regarding how these changes affect racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“Police don’t operate in a silo; prosecutors are part of the problem, too,” said Hodge. “It is a systemic issue that goes beyond just a few bad apples. It requires us to think who and what we consider criminal.”

Part of that means reckoning with how the current system cycles people through incarceration for offenses stemming from poverty, mental health and addiction, she said.

“This is a moment where, if we lean into it, we can make some radical and bold changes at the system level,” she said.

Choi said the program will continue the work he’s doing to address racial disparities, as he’s come to reckon with the role his office plays in systemic inequality. From 2013 to 2019, Choi said, his office has reduced the number of people it sends to prison by 47%.

Choi has also been meeting weekly with community members on how to “codesign” a new system for dealing with juvenile justice, he said, including sending prosecutors to work with neighborhoods in which a crime takes place.

“I used to be a prosecutor that believed these issues were so complicated and out of my control — that the police do what they do and send us the cases and we have to react to them,” said Choi.

“But what I’m hearing from my community more and more is we need to have a prosecutor that’s going to utilize the power of prosecutorial discretion to address some of these issues so we can actually have change.”

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036