Omaha City Prosecutor Matt Kuhse has decided not to file charges against most of the 250 people who were arrested in connection with minor offenses during last month’s protests against police brutality.
Those offenses included violating curfew, failure to disperse and unlawful assembly.
Two weeks ago, Kuhse met for two hours with a representative of ACLU of Nebraska and a community organizer. After the meeting, Kuhse decided that more people could be eligible for diversion or a $50 fine.
Advocates wanted the minor offenses dropped for all peaceful protesters. Ja Keen Fox, who is on Mayor Jean Stothert’s LGBTQIA advisory board and organized the meeting, said last week that Kuhse’s decision was “an imperfect step in the right direction.”
No charges were filed in about 75% of the 250 cases Kuhse’s office reviewed because those people did not have a criminal history. Of the remaining cases, the City Prosecutor’s Office offered diversion in roughly 80% and recommended a $50 fine for about 20% of the people.
Still, for a variety of reasons, Kuhse said, “a handful” of cases remain open. For example, a person may face more serious charges or they were given a later court date.
Kuhse said he didn’t have a breakdown of race for the cases, but by his own observation, the majority of the offenders were white.
Fox said Monday that one goal of justice reform in Omaha is to have race data attached to criminal cases so there is more transparency about charging and sentencing decisions.
“Any progress they have determined has been anecdotal rather than by data,” Fox said.
At a June 15 press conference, Kuhse said the protesters arrested on suspicion of violating curfew would be divided into three groups:
- Those with no criminal history would have the violation dismissed and their record sealed.
- Those with a criminal history would be recommended for diversion.
- Protesters who had a curfew violation and several other more serious charges would get a recommendation of a $50 fine for the curfew charge.
Community advocates, including Fox, criticized that plan because, they said, it would disproportionately affect protesters of color who they said may have a criminal history because of systemic racial injustice in the law enforcement and justice systems. They also said diversion programs divert people from crimes, but the protesters were using their constitutional right to express free speech.
“What does a diversion program for people expressing their First Amendment right look like?” Fox said. “What would we be diverting them away from? We don’t want to set a precedent that Omaha as a city is criminalizing our constitutional rights.”
After Kuhse met with Fox and ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad, Kuhse decided to allow those with a criminal history to choose diversion or plead to the charge with a $50 fine — as long as the past offenses didn’t involve violence.
The diversion program would have the same stipulations as diversion for other offenses — each person must stay out of trouble for six months and complete 12 hours of community service — but the four-hour required education class would be focused on restorative justice. The class will be created by the city’s Human Rights and Relations Department. Kuhse said he isn’t sure whether the class will be offered in person or online.
After a person successfully completes diversion, his or her charges are dismissed, bail is refunded and the record is sealed.
The ACLU of Nebraska also has received a list of the protesters who were charged with a minor offense and has sent out letters offering legal assistance or court fee payments from its newly created Freedom Fund. So far, the fund has helped 20 protesters statewide.
“Even a city infraction or a misdemeanor charge can carry with it lifetime, lasting consequences,” Conrad said. “Employment, educational opportunities, housing, immigration purposes ... . We really wanted to look at harm mitigation and reduction after the cases were resolved.”
With that list, the ACLU also plans to check for any racial disparities in how cases were handled.
The Nebraska Left Coalition said it raised $75,000 to bail out protesters and paid the $250 bail for 130 protesters as well as reimbursing 70 people who paid the bail themselves.
The group is now trying to recoup the money from protesters so that the bail fund can continue, according to a spokeswoman for the group.
Nebraska law states that money posted as bail — after court fees and fines are taken out — is returned to the offender. The Nebraska Left Coalition spokeswoman said protesters are being asked to donate that money back to the coalition so it can be used to bail out nonviolent protesters in the future.
A GoFundMe page created by five people called the Omaha Bail Fund has raised more than $6,000. Damien Alexander, one of the organizers, said that since organizers would need specific names to provide bail money and would be on the hook if the person doesn’t show up for court, they decided to donate nearly all of the money to GoFundMe’s Justice and Equality Fund. That fundraiser provides money to national bail and legal defense assistance nonprofits.
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