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Who Decides Whether Restorative Justice Is Allowed to Become More Effective Than Incarceration?

Equity coverage is supported by underwriting from African American Leadership Forum

The Justice for All Coalition, sponsored by the Minnesota Justice Research Center, offered a public forum about the 2024 legislative session and public safety on February 8. The program discussed changes proposed for the criminal legal system, featuring panelists Senator Clare Oumou Verbeten, Representative Danny Nadeau, Representative Cedrick Frazier, Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell. Hennepin County Commission Angela Conley offered introductory remarks.

Here are a few excerpted comments from the evening; some comments were edited for clarity.



Commissioner Angela Conley

Angela Conley (photo taken 2019 by Sarah Whiting)

When I think about things like reform and restoration, the first thing that comes to mind is “reforming restoration for who?” I have studied youth, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to make sure that youth grow into adults who are thriving.

We’re always taught that if you do something bad, you will get caught and you will go to jail. Long ago, I sat in a room at St. Catherine University learning about restorative justice. It was this new fascinating concept. It was fascinating to me that our legal system, our judges, were thinking it was a [good] thing to let our young people have a conversation with someone that they harmed. It was powerful. It worked. It reduced recidivism.

On October 31, 2022, my home was broken into overnight. They took my car keys off the wall, just feet from my 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom. They took my car and did all sorts of bad things with it. They left my door wide open; my cats were outside. I was frightened. That’s the first time I’ve felt violated. [When I got the car back, there had been] $10,000 worth of damage, and I had to pay a $1,000 deductible. 

[The young people who broke in] were not going to be able to pay me restitution and fix my car. But if they [had been caught, and I had been able to have] a conversation with them, as somebody [they harmed], maybe it would have prevented someone else from waking up to find their windows and door open, and their valuables missing, or worse.

I got my undergraduate in social work from St. Catherine University. We are about uplifting the dignity and the worth of human beings. I don’t think that jails and prisons uplift the dignity and the worth.

Some of you might be thinking, they are supposed to be in jail — it is punitive. They did something wrong. Why are we uplifting their humanity? But social work teaches you that everybody has the right to participate in society.

People always ask me, “what was the most surprising thing you discovered after you became a county commissioner?” [It is about] how deep racism runs in institutions. It’s not just the county, the city, the state, your school district. It is your property; the deeds of your houses. It is where we put incinerators. It’s where we put freeways. It’s all racism.

My capstone, when I finished my master’s program at Hamline, was about racism. I argued that no child under the age of 17 should be tried as adults ever. My research was based on brain development, on science — the prefrontal cortex is not developed enough. The cortex tells us what consequences we might get if we do something bad. If you’re 17, you have no clue. You are impulsive. You want their car. You want what they have.

The prefrontal cortex is fully developed at the age of 24. Imagine someone at the age of 17 who has done a crime and is in an adult jail, with murderers and rapists. Do we think that is the correct environment? Any conversation that starts with reforming our justice system or restoration has to start with science.

What we’ve been hearing in the news for the last several years about carjackings, and horrible crimes, has been happening for a very long time. What we do in this country is we incarcerate, and we haven’t really thought about anything other than incarcerate.

I believe that science gives us the answer for why youth should be the top cases for restorative models of justice, even youth who commit the most egregious crimes.

I think that we can change the trajectory of youth if we invest in restorative justice — if we tell our judges, our lawyers, that restorative justice is the model that we want to push. If our legislators invest in it and give counties and courts the ability to do that. If there’s political will, and enough advocacy, our youth do not have to end up in jail.


Minnesota Representative Danny Nadeau

I would say that not having punishment for bad actors, regardless of age, and putting them back into community is not good for community. That being said, when we’re talking about young people that have committed a relatively severe crime, if they go in front of the judge and they’re judged to not be competent, they go out of the jurisdiction of the court system, and then there’s no placement for that. Department of Human Services has not built placements for those kids.

The statutes clearly define the most important thing in keeping that youth in the juvenile system is to be focused on the individual needs of that youth. Even in probation, we’re incorporating more nonprofit organizations that are bringing … incredibly effective community-based interventions for young people that have somehow involved themselves in the criminal justice system.

What’s happening in probation and some of the other programs, it’s basically trying to reframe what it is that those kids [need] — then having that counselor or psychotherapist talking about [whether you did what you need to do to] move the needle forward. It’s a shift in the way that we that we are dealing with adolescence. It’s an absolutely integral component of diverting kids from entering the adult correctional facility. I think we need to continue to work on it harder. I think we should invest more in it.

Nothing in the criminal justice system is a standalone, it’s not an answer on its own — it’s connected.

Some colleagues have decided that it’s not a good idea to have out-of-home placement for criminally involved youth. We can have a debate about whether that’s good, or that’s bad. But if we remove options from the system, we have to build something to replace that option, and it can’t be based on politics, it can’t be based on ideology — it has to be based on science and recognizing that we have to be open enough and flexible enough to say that we’re going to change this over time. It’s not a one-and-done.


Q: The Department of Correction still uses solitary confinement as one of its practices. In light of evidence demonstrating the harm inflicted by solitary confinement, and community outcry, how is DOC acting urgently to implement comprehensive policy changes?

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell

 

We all know that the punitive responses to wrongdoing have not made us fundamentally safer. That is certainly the case when we look at things like the use of solitary confinement or restrictive policy.

One of the things we’re looking at right now is to have people recognize that doing good stuff pays off. When you ask people outside, “what changed when you were in?” [they say] “it was when I started to realize that by doing good, good came [of it].” We hear this regularly from people who’ve been incarcerated a long time.

I think we can start to have a system where we’re [having good results with] tangible benefits, such as early release. I also think that we need to put right up front that we need to put some sunshine on the realities of restrictive housing. The racial disparities that exist, and even elements of justice by geography — where there are different practices in different correctional facilities — that is the duplicity.

Our policy discussions that are going to happen in this upcoming session are related to this very issue. … I am confident that there will be significant change around the use of restrictive housing. I know you’ve been saying it’s going to come out of legislative session — it will — but it is the conversation itself that will help drive some change.


Q: Illinois became the first state to end cash bail. There were efforts last session to eliminate this practice in Minnesota. What are your thoughts about this issue in the upcoming session, and what are the road blocks?

Senator Clare Oumou Verbeten

Clare Oumou Verbeten (prior to election in 2022, photo by Sarah Whiting)

We don’t want to continue this system based on money and your ability to pay, rather than the severity. There are so many other [options] that we can look at to keep people safe and to set up a system that is more fair.

What we did do in 2023, was pass a study and bring together experts to look at cash bail and figure out a better system. We can find that support across party lines. I remember that being the case with cannabis. In one committee hearing, we heard “yes, we understand expungement, we’re totally on board with that” — it took years of organizing [to get to that point].

I’m very hopeful, seeing what we were able to move in 2023 and seeing support across party lines.


Q: Justice for All Coalition is a collective of advocates, social workers, lawyers, and those who have first-hand experience of the legal system pressing for reforms to seek meaningful legal system transformations that protect public safety. The Justice For All coalition developed its legislative agenda. Thoughts on that agenda?

Representative Danny Nadeau

There’s not a ton here that excites me, actually. It’s mostly because it’s all in the details. We did a lot last year, and I’m one of those guys that thinks government should move a lot slower than it does — measure those interventions and that effectiveness, see what works, double down on those things, and jettison [others]. So, I’m really hoping we slow down a bit this session.

Representative Cedrick Frazier

My focus will continue to be on how do we address that we’re losing too many young people to these weapons in our communities?

They’re being brought in from other places, and then sold to people in our communities. So how do we address that issue to ensure that our kids and adults can be safe in their communities, by removing weapons out of the hands of young people who do not yet have a totally developed brain yet, to know what the impact will be when you pull that trigger? I’m excited about working on policies that will address that. I’m looking forward to having those conversations with my colleagues across the aisle, because these things don’t only happen where I live — they happen all over the state of Minnesota.

 


Justice for All 2024 Legislative Agenda

 

Great North Innocence Project 

Police Interrogations: (HF 2319, SF 2495)  Prohibits law enforcement from using deceptive interrogation tactics like false evidence and promises of leniency, which often lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions, making statements obtained through these methods likely inadmissible.

Post-Conviction Relief: (HF 2400, SF 2597) Amends the statute of limitations for post-conviction claims based on newly discovered evidence, allowing a more accessible route to justice in cases where evidence undermining the conviction’s integrity emerges later, without fault on the defendant’s part.

 

Center for Policing Equity 

Pretext Stop Data Collection: (HF 4156) Requires statewide data collection on police traffic stops, with the goal of gathering comprehensive information to support evidence-based decision-making.  

Amending Pretexting Stops: Ends low-level, non-safety traffic stops by reclassifying specific infractions as secondary offenses, ensuring they cannot be the primary reason for a stop.

 

The Northstar Act

Immigration Enforcement: Prohibits state and local law enforcement from utilizing state resources for civil immigration enforcement, ensuring no cooperation with federal funds requiring such actions and stipulating no immigration enforcement in places of worship, schools, hospitals, or courthouses.

 

Violence Free Minnesota 

The Survivor’s Justice Act: Grants judges flexibility in sentencing victim-survivors of domestic or sexual violence, permitting downward departures from mandatory minimums to address their unique circumstances and allowing individuals already in prison for crimes related to their victimization to seek resentencing.

Advocate Confidentiality: (SF 3441)(HF 3509) Enhances confidentiality protections for Domestic Violence Advocates, ensuring they cannot be compelled to testify in court, bringing their level of confidentiality in line with that already allowed by Sexual Assault Advocates.

 

Legal Rights Center

Raising the Lower Age for Juvenile Prosecution: (HF 3671, SF 3694) Raises the minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction and detention to thirteen, encouraging more inclusion of research on developmental and recognizing the ineffectiveness of prosecuting young children and the importance of including family systems in interventions.

Raise Upper Age Limit for Juvenile Jurisdiction (EJJ): (HF 3480, SF 3904) Raises the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction and enacts substantial changes to both EJJ and adult certification statutes.

 

Minnesota Harm Reduction Collaborative 

Drug Policy Reform: Broadens the reside statute to cover more substances and decreases criminal penalties for possession at the 5th-degree threshold, clarifying what constitutes residue by including small amounts of substances; and creates a referral network for first responders.

 

Hennepin County Attorney’s Office 

Gun Violence Prevention Package: Removes barriers and redirects funding for victims involved in the justice system; allocates funds for group violence intervention initiatives built on collaborations between law enforcement and communities; and enhances the flexibility and efficiency of prosecutors handling felony weapons possession cases through the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Brady/Giglio: Amends the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and the statute governing law-enforcement reporting to grant prosecuting agencies access to the information monitored by the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board.

 

Policing Project 

Independent Investigation for Officer-Involved Use of Force Cases that Result in Death: (HF 3852, SF 3982)  Requires independent investigations for any in-custody use of force for cases that result in death, as currently it is not required by law.

Banning Consent Searches for Roadside Stops: (HF3851,SF 3938Prohibits consent searches during roadside stops without reasonable suspicion of a gross misdemeanor or felony offense, forbids marijuana pretext searches, deems evidence from illegal consent searches inadmissible, and mandates discipline for law enforcement officers who violate these regulations through referral to the POST Board.

 

At the “39 Years of Vision and Values” event, we will unveil a public safety discussion guide series that Badass members around the state will use in focus group conversations over the next year.