State Policy Makers Discuss Criminal Justice Reform

The MLK Day Legislative Preview on Criminal Justice Reform, held at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis on January 16, was moderated by Justin Terrell, executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center. It featured (l-r) Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, Vice Chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee; Rep. Kelly Moller, Chair of the House Public Safety Committee; Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell; and Rep. Paul Novotny, Republican Lead House Public Safety Committee.

See related story about the January 19 House committee testimony for HF 25

January 16, 2023 — A group of policy leaders spoke about criminal justice reform at an event in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

One of them was Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten (DFL–66), who was 27 when she was elected in the fall as one of the first three Black women senators ever in the Minnesota state legislature. She said she became an advocate after Philando Castile was killed by the police six years ago. “I was so angry that what happened my community continued to happen throughout our state and I felt like nobody was fighting for us,” she said. “Now I am vice chair of the judiciary and public safety committee in the Minnesota Senate.”

On Thursday, the House Public Safety Committee will have a hearing about HF25, a bill that includes:

  • $15 million for violent crime investigations statewide to expedite clearance rates (currently crime lab testing of sexual assault evidence can take eight months)
  • $30 million for grants administered by the Office of Justice Programs to be awarded to community violence prevention and intervention programs, such as victim services, re-entry programs for recently incarcerate individuals, homelessness assistance programs, mediation intervention for disputes before they become violent, and juvenile diversion programs
  • Grants to local law enforcement agencies and local governments to maintain or expand crisis response teams that send social workers or mental health providers as first responders when calls indicate an individual is having a mental health crisis — $25 million in fiscal year 2023 and $15 million each year thereafter. In 2023, the additional $10 million will be for local law enforcement to acquire, improve, or replace technology or equipment used to investigate crimes or process evidence.

Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL–42A) indicated that additional bills could provide greater support for victim services, such as culturally responsive programs for violent crime survivors and temporary hotel stays for people who do not feel safe in their home after violent crime. To learn more about what victim advocates need, she is meeting with Artika Roller, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).

Moller also indicated in her comments that her political philosophy is to “look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call for the good and … assume good intent. We don’t do this job for the money. We may have different ideas about how to get to the end result, but we’re all there for the right reasons.”

She has met with every individual on the Public Safety Committee. “I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was surprised at how many things we actually have in common,” she said, such as a bipartisan desire to reform the juvenile justice system.

Last week, the House public safety committee passed on a bill, with bipartisan support, to provide for the Office for Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls, as well as labor trafficking.

Need for Restorative Justice

Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Paul Schnell, pointed out that often people with prison terms of 30 years or more do not talk to anyone from the criminal justice system for 27 years after sentencing. The same holds true for victims of those crimes. He says the state must have a greater commitment to repairing this “disconnection” and “do a better job of lifting up and providing rehabilitation opportunities for people. Restorative justice does that. It also lifts up and provides healing for victims and builds stronger communities. … One of the easiest places to introduce restorative justice has been in the juvenile justice sphere. There are some really exciting bills being developed that I can’t wait to support, because I think it is going to be a game changer. Ultimately we empower the entire system to think in a more restorative way.”

That includes serving rural communities better with treatment programs. The lack of these resources outside the Twin Cities, Schnell says, is why so many people are jailed for technical violations, such as missing meetings or failing the lone available treatment program.

“We face such a divided country, and really a divided state,” Schnell said. “This state has been [a global focus] since the murder of George Floyd. … The diversification of our legislature, like we’ve never seen before, is an incredibly exciting time. I feel this call to action.”

He is a proponent of the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board as a way to ensure that police officers adhere to the terms of their licenses.

Verbeten added, “Let’s set strong standards, and be ready to enforce them.”

UPDATE 1/24 from Minnesota Reformer: The chief administrative law judge has approved groundbreaking new rules governing police licensure and conduct proposed by a Minnesota licensing board. The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST Board, is on its way to being able to take cops off the street for misconduct even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime or disciplined by their police department. 

The three-year rule-making process began in August 2020, a few months after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, sparking interest in the board’s role in police misconduct after the Legislature stalled on reforms.

Bipartisan Approach?

Rep. Paul Novotny (GOP–30B), a Republican from the Elk River area, serves on the public safety finance and policy committee. He added: “No matter what the situation, all the voices together make a better decision. Our goal is that no mothers in any part of the state have to bury their children because of violence. As chairman Moller said, we need to look at common goals and fix the things that we can fix.”

Novotny was formerly a police officer in Princeton, Minnesota, and a deputy for the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office. He opened up his comments by saying: “It doesn’t matter who you are, who you vote for, who you love — you deserve the same [level] of service and safety.”

“Prevention of future crime should take precedence over punishment of current crime,” Novotny added.

Novotny also indicated there should be a different mindset when it comes to punishing “people we are scared of compared to people we are mad at.” Issues of drinking and addiction, for example, are people we might be mad at for putting others and themselves at risk. It is people who use violence that we should be focusing more punitive attention on — and in a way that addresses their behaviors so they don’t come out the same, or worse, than they went in.

Justin Terrell, executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center, indicated that in many cases we have a greater ability to deal with problems within a community rather than isolating people behind walls.

Restoration of Vote

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison opened the evening with lesser known history about Martin Luther King’s wide-ranging activism. He pointed out that King’s last act was to march with striking sanitation workers because King understood that the economic system of the U.S. was “done” to its people, not “for” its people.

He reminded the audience that it was not long ago in the U.S. when it was a crime for Black people to learn how to read, war crimes were committed against Black Civil War soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan grew after Black people were allowed to engage in politics, and there was an average of three lynchings per week.

Ellison said his grandfather was threatened because he was mobilizing Black voters, and his mother was of the generation not allowed to swim in the city pool.

Ellison is a proponent of HF28, which seeks to restore the right to vote to people who have been incarcerated. He pointed out that in states like Maine and Vermont, no one ever loses the right to vote, and Minnesota needs to correct itself with this legislation. “There is no good reason to couple voting with criminal justice,” he said, adding that the country is largely divided between “people who love justice and equality, and people who don’t.”

The question was asked: Does not allowing someone to vote do anything to regain their connections in community?

Bills HF25 and HF28 will be discussed at the Public Safety Finance and Policy committee hearings on Thursday, 10:30am. Live video is available on the House Youtube Page, @MNHouseInfo

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