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Committee hopes for more equitable courts, report to be available in December

BEMIDJI--Concerned citizens, judges, public defenders and court officials gathered to discuss racial inequality in the justice system and suggest solutions Tuesday evening during a community dialogue session hosted by the Ninth Judicial District'...

BEMIDJI-Concerned citizens, judges, public defenders and court officials gathered to discuss racial inequality in the justice system and suggest solutions Tuesday evening during a community dialogue session hosted by the Ninth Judicial District's Equal Justice Committee.

While American Indians make up five percent of the Ninth Judicial District's adult population, 26 percent of the district's major criminal filings are against the group, according to data provided by the committee. Ninth District Judge Korey Wahwassuck said the disparity is concerning to the committee and is something the group hopes to address.

"We're working to make the courts more culturally competent and fair for everyone, and in order to do that we need to understand what community members' experiences are in the court system," Wahwassuck said. "We need to understand what experiences you've had."

More than 40 participants broke off into two groups to share those experiences with the judges and lawyers present. Some worried that judges were disconnected from the communities they serve. Others requested special considerations for new mothers going through the court system or services that would help people without vehicles get to court.

Curtis Buckanaga, a community member who attended the event, said a history of discrimination against Native Americans-inside and outside the courts-has contributed to the disparity.

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"The discrimination that we face with lack of opportunity, lack of jobs, lack of resources, that does create disparity in a lot of communities, that does result in criminality," Buckanaga said. "All the elements are there in our community to make us enemies of the state pretty much, but there's no resources there to get us out of some of the things we're experiencing."

Paul Benshoof, the chief judge of the Ninth Judicial District, asked participants if they believed they are being listened to and treated fairly in court and acknowledged the challenges Native American communities face.

"That's real," Benshoof said. "That affects you guys every day in ways that I don't even begin to understand."

Nicole Buckanaga, who also attended the event, expressed concern that one experience with the court system can have far-reaching consequences.

"Things snowball. These are the realities of indigenous people standing in front of a judge," Buckanaga said.

Sarah Prentice-Mott, a public defender, said that acknowledging prejudice within the courts is important.

"I think we make it worse by pretending the right way to deal with it is to not talk about race at all," Prentice-Mott said. "At some point somebody's got to stand up and say the buck stops here."

The committee will use the feedback from Tuesday's event to create a report, which will be available in December.

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