The Minnesota Department of Corrections will soon seek citizen help with deciding who gets out of prison and who remains locked up. Under a new law, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell will no longer make release decisions on his own. Starting in July, a new citizen panel will decide which inmates serving life sentences are released and which stay in prison, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "This has been one of the most incredible experiences of this job, the parole responsibilities," Schnell said. "It's really brutally difficult, and yet I've met some of the most incredible people." The idea behind the change is to have a broader group of Minnesotans decide who is released rather than only the commissioner making the call. Schnell said the new approach will be more open and balanced, including appointees from both political parties. A simple majority of the panel will determine what happens with a release request.
The board will handle requests from inmates serving mandatory minimum life sentences, most of them convicted of first-degree murder. About 500 inmates are in that category and most will be paroled at some point, Schnell said. Those inmates must serve 30 years before seeking release. The board will also consider rapists sentenced to mandatory minimums of 15 years. The panel will review information from a variety of sources including prison staff, prosecutors, the community, and family members of the victim. Board members must do significant homework, and review documentation, including information about crimes, community impact, victim sentiment, and the inmate's life in prison. Appointees must meet with victims' families and visit at least one state correctional facility a year. "I've met so many people who lost loved ones to the actions of another person, and I've been struck by their unimaginable pain and their incredible resilience," Schnell said. "The role has also provided me the opportunity witness to incredible change and transformation by some of the people who've engaged in conduct for which there is no explanation or ability to remedy."