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With a Broad Coalition, Minnesota Overhauls Its Criminal Justice System

Building on years of organizing and advocacy, policymakers in Minnesota have passed a package of policy changes aimed at modernizing and improving the state’s criminal justice system.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signing public safety bill SF 2909 into law on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Aaron Lavinsky /AP)

In 2000, when he was 16 years old, Roberto Lopez-Rios was caught up in a gang-related shooting in Minneapolis. Though he didn’t pull a trigger, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Even now, 20 years later, it’s still hard for me to understand. How can you do this to a child?” he wondered in an interview last year with Art from the Inside. I know people out there know that this is wrong, but nobody’s really stepping up or saying anything about it. I guess they think if you don’t pay attention to it, it doesn’t exist.”

Attention is finally being paid. Lopez-Rios’ case is one of hundreds set to be re-examined in Minnesota thanks to a sweeping criminal justice omnibus bill, SF 2909, that passed the state’s senate in April and was signed by Governor Tim Walz in May. Among the many approved reforms are the elimination of juvenile life without parole, limitations on no-knock warrants, the restriction of probation terms to five years or less, the introduction of prosecutor-led sentencing, the creation of an Office of Restorative Practices and an Office for Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls, a budget appropriation for free prison phone calls, funding for the study of pretrial release practices and bail, and an expansion of compassionate release.

We had a number of provisions in the public safety budget bill that we had been working on for many, many years, and I think it is a transformational bill for public safety reform for Minnesota.
Rep. Jamie Long Majority Leader for the Minnesota House of Representatives

This was a huge win. We had a number of provisions in the public safety budget bill that we had been working on for many, many years, and I think it is a transformational bill for public safety reform for Minnesota,” said Rep. Jamie Long, the majority leader for the Minnesota House of Representatives. He credits organizational partners— including several Arnold Ventures (AV) grantees — for their tireless efforts and their ability to amplify the voices of people who will be directly impacted by the bill. That cut through at the legislature, and was able to really help build the support we needed over time to get the bill passed,” Long says. 

Minnesota has been laying the groundwork for justice reform for years, with many of these policies being researched and debated for multiple sessions,” says Alyson Clements, director of criminal justice advocacy at AV. With their passage, it is clear that Minnesota is stepping up as a leader committed to a justice system that is fair, effective, and just.” 

Clean Slate Coalition

When Long first ran for office, he met a woman who’d struggled with drugs in her early twenties and, years later, still couldn’t get housing or the educational programming of her choice due to her record. 

I knew there were thousands of Minnesotans facing similar issues,” Long says. 

That experience inspired him to pursue the Clean Slate Act, which he had introduced in the last three legislative sessions and was largely incorporated into this year’s omnibus bill.

Research shows that involvement with the criminal justice system can create barriers to finding a job or a place to live. We are not good, as a society, about giving people the opportunity for reintegration and redemption,” Long explains. 

He’s not the only one passionate about improving second chances. Prosecutors were also a key advocate in favor of Clean Slate programming, building a broad coalition in support of reforms. 

There were a lot of thoughtful conversations, a lot of stakeholders involved, both sides of the aisle consulted,” said Lauren Krisai, the deputy director at Justice Action Network (JAN), an AV grantee. The process has been very careful, and we know it’s going to have a great impact on so many different people in Minnesota. It’s been a thrilling session.”

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, for example, brought attention to the fact that few people were taking advantage of the state’s existing expungement statutes, which involved a costly and time-consuming process. The new legislation removes many of those barriers for low-level charges. 

All misdemeanors and low-level felonies that are eligible for expungement are going to be automatically expunged once the system is up and running,” Krisai explains, noting that there will be some exceptions, like domestic-violence offenses. It’s amazing because there are only a couple of states that have allowed for automatic expungement of felonies.”

Tackling Probation Reform

Barriers to reentry not only make it difficult to start a free and productive life, but can also keep people entangled with the criminal justice system. Probation and supervised release, for example, have a way of laying out tripwires that can land people behind bars for mere technical violations. 

Hanging over their heads is that anytime they could mess up — miss a meeting, fail a drug test — they could lose their employment, lose their housing, get sent back to prison,” says Will Cooley, the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC)’s Re-Imagining Community Supervision project lead. And it’s not a good use of a probation officer’s time. They are key in reducing violence and should focus on the people getting out of prisons and jails, not checking in on someone who’s been in compliance for ten years.”

amount of admissions in Minnesota prisons that are from supervision failures
1 in 4
portion of people who make up the Minnesota prison population with supervision failures

The administrative drag extends far beyond the probation office: Sixty percent of new admissions in Minnesota prisons are from supervision failures, MNJRC has noted, and these people make up one in four of the state’s prison population. 

Yet Minnesota stood out as one of only a handful of states that allowed probation terms to be as long as a potential maximum sentence. 

As an example of how this can go terribly wrong, JAN elevated the story of Jennifer Schroeder, who testified for the bill. Schroeder pleaded guilty to a drug charge in 2013 and received one year in jail, which she had already served awaiting sentencing, and a whopping 40 years of probation (with the threat of an eight-year prison sentence if that probation was violated). Under the reforms, probation terms are capped at five years — with the cap applied retroactively to most offenses, including Schroeder’s.

When somebody is sentenced to probation, they’re sentenced to serve their term in the community. They are deemed safe enough to be around the rest of us,” Krisai points out. Data shows that if they haven’t recidivated or committed another crime within the first two years, they’re likely not going to for the rest of their term.”

Fines and Fees

The omnibus also aims to eliminate unfair fines and fees in the justice system by studying and planning to sunset supervision fees while also eliminating costs for those incarcerated to contact their loved ones. 

People who are on these long probation terms faced all sorts of fees: You may have to pay every time you take a drug test, for polygraph tests, for home monitoring, all those things,” says Cooley. These fees add up and can place an unnecessary burden on people already struggling to access good paying jobs, affordable housing, and basic necessities. 

For those still incarcerated, the state also appropriated funds to provide free phone calls home, a passion project for bill authors state Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten and state Rep. Esther Agbaje. “[Y]ears of studies show us that when families are consistently connected, the support system that an incarcerated person needs to succeed when they go home, as 95% will, is there to lean on,” the pair of lawmakers wrote in an op-ed for MinnPost.

New Partners, New Reforms

In one of the most exciting developments from SF 2909, Minnesota will become the sixth state to enact a Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing law. This policy follows nearly three years of advocacy and many hours of careful discussions with county attorneys, led by AV grantee For The People (FTP).

The work around decarceration and reuniting families had historically been something that defense attorneys — and advocates, activists, academics, and some lawmakers — were involved with,” explains Hillary Blout, FTP’s founder and executive director. Prosecutors are some of the most powerful actors in the justice system, and while their job had been mostly about putting people in prison, we believed that many would embrace getting people out — when it can be done safely.”

Now, with this new legislation, a prosecutor may review a case — based on today’s social standards and current research, as well as the rehabilitation, good behavior, programming, and remorse a person has exhibited and pursued while incarcerated — and make a recommendation to the court to consider whether the person should remain in prison. 

In that process, typically, the prosecutor will engage with the victim and explain why they’re considering this case at all,” says Blout, a former prosecutor herself.

As an example of such a resentencing, Blout points to how the legislation has worked in another state. California’s Assembly Bill 2942, which was signed into law in 2021, allowed Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin to review the case of Alwin Smith, who was sentenced to 65 years to life after robbing a pizza place while struggling with addiction. Over his two decades of incarceration, he got clean and studied to become a pastor, ultimately lending spiritual and moral support to his fellow inmates. Since release, he runs a ministry and works at the reentry nonprofit Root & Rebound. 

He is incredible, but he is not unique,” Blout says. Even wardens and correctional officers were recommending that he be released, but there had been no real mechanism to do that.” 

The topic of Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing is picking up steam now, Lim thinks, due to an era of reflection from these attorneys and their constituents alike. 

More and more people are recognizing the power that prosecutors hold and the ripple effects that their decisions make on communities and families,” she observes. Prosecutors across the political spectrum are looking for solutions that can keep our community safe, but also do the right thing.”

An End to Juvenile Life Without Parole

An additional increasingly popular sentencing reform that was included in Minnesota’s bill is the elimination of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). Over the past several years, the number of states banning the practice has risen to 28, including Minnesota. 

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum should remain committed to JLWOP abolition going forward, as creating second-look opportunities for people who entered the system as children has proven successful in states as progressive as Oregon and Connecticut and as conservative as Arkansas and West Virginia,” says Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), an AV-grantee, which has been working on this legislation in Minnesota since at least 2016. Across the country, the people who are being allowed to come home are doing precisely what we would expect rehabilitated people to do — working, supporting their families, and making their communities stronger and safer.” 

A lot of groups and local advocates have been beating this drum for a long time, and now the legislature is ready to have those nuanced conversations.
Lauren Krisai deputy director at Justice Action Network

The next steps for the 97 people in Minnesota, including Lopez-Rios, who are now eligible for a review of their sentence? CFSY is aiming to assemble a database of the people and families affected by the new law to ensure they have the information they need for their hearings, and will work with defense lawyers and the Minnesota Department of Corrections to educate and equip these groups for the new processes as well. Finally, as people begin to come home as a result of the review process, we will connect them with ICAN [Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network] and all of the support and resources it offers,” Shipp says. 

Next Steps

Aside from their open minds and their legislative support, what advocacy groups have also sought from Minnesota lawmakers is time and funding for future study. In this new legislation, MNJRC got that in the form of a $250,000 grant to examine pretrial release practices in Minnesota and other states. 

We know it’s relying on a system that says if you are wealthy, you can get out. If you’re poor, you’re going to stay incarcerated. A lot of researchers in Minnesota are saying, This is the aunties and grandma tax,’” Cooley says. We’ve already been collaborating with the experts at Arnold Ventures, who have been spearheading this research, and we hope to continue that.” 

MNJRC’s first report is planned for this summer, and the final results are due to the state, with legislative proposals, by February 2025

While SF 2909 is a victory in so many ways, the bill has its shortcomings, notes Cooley. For one, it lacks an aspect of accountability and there is concern several counties may not change their practices. Let’s say, five years from now, a county is still sending lots and lots of people back to prison for violations. What we would have liked to see is some sort of accountability and compliance mechanism that kicks in down the road,” he explains. 

For her part, Krisai is glad the state is joining what she sees as a national moment of criminal justice reform. There are a ton of opportunities to continue moving the needle,” she says. A lot of groups and local advocates have been beating this drum for a long time, and now the legislature is ready to have those nuanced conversations.”