Perspectives on 2020 From Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Kassius O. Benson

BensonKassius2020 was a challenging year. First, the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the world requiring shutdowns of large parts of the government, schools, and court systems. Then, in the spring, the recorded killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers led to social unrest, protests, and a refocus by many on the systemic racism and injustice that permeate our country.

These dual events of 2020—the global pandemic and the social unrest after the killing of George Floyd—have presented unique challenges as well as exposed persistent problems within our criminal justice system. Although horrible, the tragedy and trauma of the last year have presented opportunities for public defenders to remember why we do this work and whom we serve, renew our efforts to represent the clients we serve to the fullest, and rebuild trust with the communities that we serve. The events have presented an opportunity for the Public Defender’s Office to grow as an organization as we continue to fight for our clients.

Adjusting to Life with the COVID-19 Pandemic
One significant change to court systems in response to the pandemic involves the use of remote technology for court appearances. Due to the need to avoid large gatherings in response to COVID-19 concerns and protocols, court systems and defenders’ offices throughout the nation have used Zoom or Microsoft Teams software to handle court appearances and communicate with criminal defendants. In some systems, this remote technology has largely taken the place of in-person contact. As the vaccine rolls out and we look toward the future, conversations are being held regarding how remote technology can be used going forward. The “convenience” of this remote technology, if used indiscriminately, will present a problem for our office, and other defender offices, in the way we stay connected, provide quality representation, and zealously defend our clients.

The Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office prides itself on client-centered representation, which means different things to different agencies. Here, however, we believe that our in-person interactions with our clients are of utmost importance. Being available and present to stand next to our clients at an in-person proceeding is critical to such representation. Having contact with our clients as we explain their legal situations and potential consequences is vital to quality representation. Going forward, as the pandemic hopefully recedes, our office will be pushing against the routine use of remote technology to the extent that it prevents in-person appearances and encourages unnecessary distance between our attorneys and our clients.

Striving for Positive Change in the Aftermath of the Killing of George Floyd
The tragedy of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked renewed debate and conversation about the criminal justice system and what we can do as attorneys within that system to create real, lasting change. Because our clients are largely people of color, we at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s office regularly, if not daily, encounter the issues of police brutality, racism, and a fractured criminal justice system. As public defenders, we are intimately involved with the criminal justice system. We have witnessed firsthand how our clients, predominantly people of color, have been unfairly treated within that system. We have been eyewitnesses to jury pools that frequently lack any people of color. We have witnessed decisions by courts and prosecutors that have racially disparate impacts on the clients we serve. And yes, even before George Floyd, we and the nation have repeatedly witnessed the killing of African American men and women at the hands of police officers. As members of the criminal justice system, we see firsthand the ardent need to make changes to the way we do business.

All the above is true and undeniable. In the wake of the events of the past year, attorneys and other members of the criminal justice system should take this renewed opportunity to come together and examine ourselves. We must reflect on the part we have played in this system as well as what we can do to better confront racism and inequality.

This self-reflection should not be limited to judges, prosecutors, police officers, and juries. Public defender offices must also reflect, contemplate, and account for their role in this system. As public defenders, we are duty-bound to zealously represent every client. Public defenders are also susceptible to implicit biases that permeate the rest of the criminal justice system, and that is particularly concerning given the disparate number of clients of color in our offices. While we encourage the other members of the criminal justice system to make changes in how they treat and provide services to people of color, defenders must review, correct, and improve the services we provide as well.

On January 1, 2021, I began my term as chief public defender of Hennepin County. I found an office full of excellent attorneys and support staff who are dedicated to representing our clients to the fullest. However, I have also found a lack of diversity within the office. The refocus on issues of race, diversity, and community in the year since George Floyd’s death has provided an opportunity to focus on this lack of diversity and address it. As part of this effort, our main initiatives over the next year include increasing diversity and inclusion in our workplace; establishing true, honest, and open relationships with the people and communities we serve; and providing a forum for our clients and staff to express their concerns. These measures will provide information that will lead to sustainable change in the way we deliver and obtain justice to our clients.

The last year of 2020 has left lasting tragedy and trauma for our entire country. The dual events of the global pandemic and the death of George Floyd, though tragic, have provided an opportunity for reflection and action. I am proud to say that the attorneys and staff at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office will take this opportunity to evaluate where we are as an agency and to make changes to better serve our clients and our communities.

Kassius O. Benson
Mr. Benson is the chief public defender for the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office. Prior to the start of his first term on January 1, 2021, he was the owner and senior counsel at Kassius Benson Law; a law firm focused on the criminal defense of individuals charged with crimes in state and federal courts throughout the country. He is board certified as a Criminal Law Specialist by the Minnesota State Bar Association.

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