After an election when Republicans pounded Democrats for being soft on crime, the Democratic-controlled Minnesota legislature passed a raft of legislation this year that could result in scores of people being released from prison sooner; shorter terms of probation or community supervision; erasure of some convictions for aiding and abetting felonies and reduction in sentences of others; and easier expungement of certain non-violent crimes.
Lawmakers also legalized marijuana, as well as possession of drug paraphernalia even if it has drug residue. They made it easier to get clemency. They made a major investment into community violence prevention grants, while also giving $300 million to cities and counties to spend on public safety as they see fit, reports News From The States.
Republicans criticized some of the me measures as dangerous “get out of jail free” bills that “coddle criminals” and take money from law enforcement and give it to unaccountable nonprofits. Democrats say their proposals are backed by solid social science, such as studies showing how Minnesota’s criminal justice system has disparately affected communities of color.
Many provisions are aimed at preparing prisoners for their release, making it easier for prisoners and former prisoners to get jobs, housing and education — all key factors in reducing recidivism.
Former New York Police Sgt. Keith Taylor, an instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the key is to set metrics to see whether the programs are working.
Democrats say ideas that may seem generous to people who have committed crimes have been tested elsewhere. The public safety budget bill includes $3.1 million annually to make phone calls free for prisoners, with the goal of keeping them connected to the outside world.
House public safety committee chair Rep. Kelly Moller said the legislation invests in innovative strategies to break cycles of violence and builds trust in the criminal justice system — which is “failing on many levels.” If people don’t trust the system, victims don’t report crimes, witnesses don’t come forward and juries don’t trust the process, she said.
The Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act allows prisoners to get out earlier and shortens their community supervision if they participate in rehabilitation programs tailored to their needs, like mental health and substance use disorders. Thirty-eight other states have similar “earned release” policies.
In Minnesota, people serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison and one-third on supervised release, regardless of whether they sought help while inside. Under the legislation, prisoners will be eligible to get out when half their sentence has been served if they complete programs and behave well in prison.
A Prison Policy Initiative report said Minnesota has fewer people in prison than the national average but ranks “among the most punitive in the nation when you look at its full system of correctional control.”
About 8,000 people are in prison, but 82,000 are on probation. Minnesota has a larger share of its population in the corrections system than Alabama, although a Minnesota resident is far less likely to be incarcerated.