DFL pushes legislation to make Minnesota criminal justice system more rehabilitative, less punitive

Bills would allow prisoners to earn earlier release, cut length of probation and limit aiding and abetting murder

By: - March 3, 2023 6:01 am

Jamiccia Donnerson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 12 years because she was in the car when two 23-year-old men she was with killed another man. Donnerson testified Tuesday to a House public safety committee in support of a bill changing Minnesota’s aiding and abetting felony murder laws. Screenshot from House hearing

Democratic lawmakers are pushing bills to make the criminal justice system more rehabilitative and less punitive. 

One bill would allow state prisoners to be released earlier by not engaging in misconduct and participating in a rehabilitation plan. 

Another would limit the conditions under which a person can be convicted of aiding and abetting two types of felony murder. And a third bill would free thousands of Minnesotans from lengthy terms of probation. 

The strong push for reform comes after Minnesota Republicans sought to paint Democrats as soft-on-crime during the midterm elections, but came away with nothing to show for it.  

Undeterred, some Republicans suggested during hearings on the bills that Democrats were going too easy on people who commit crimes,  but acknowledged there’s little they can do with the DFL in control of both chambers and the governorship.

“I know where this is gonna go, and you know, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, a former sheriff’s deputy, said in exasperation at one point during a Tuesday committee hearing.

Get out of prison sooner

Despite its progressive leanings, Minnesota’s corrections system is still heavily punitive, rather than rehabilitative. 

By state corrections officials’ own admission, most prisoners are just being warehoused, with no incentive to participate in programs that would reduce the likelihood they’ll re-offend.

And warehousing people increases the likelihood that they’ll misbehave while in prison and commit another crime when they get out by 13%, according to the DOC.

The Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act, HF1319, would allow prisoners to earn an earlier release and shortened community supervision by participating in programs tailored to their needs. Thirty-eight other states have similar “earned release” policies.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said she was horrified to learn — as a domestic violence prosecutor in Hennepin County — that state prisoners aren’t required to do programming.

“So here we have this opportunity where we’ve interrupted the cycle of violence, we have this person, they’re incarcerated. It’s this amazing opportunity to sort of right the ship and get people the services that they need so that they do not reoffend — so that they become full contributing members of our community. And the current system doesn’t typically do that. Typically, it’s a holding space for people,” she said during a February committee hearing.

About 95% of prisoners will be released at some point. While they’re imprisoned, she said, they should get treatment for substance abuse or mental health problems.

“I think that’s really important if we want people to get better — if we do want to correct a wrong and not just punish people while they are incarcerated,” Becker-Finn said.

In Minnesota, people serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison, and one-third on supervised release, which means prisoners get out after serving 67% of their sentence, regardless of whether they sought help while imprisoned.

The bill would allow prisoners to earn the right to get out when half their sentence has been served by fully completing programs.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said it’s time to focus less on how much time people spend in prison, and more on how they use that time.

“We believe that this is really a game-changing proposition,” he said during the House committee hearing. “We are in the business of trying to transform lives, and that is fundamentally focused on the safety of our state.”

Grant Duwe, research director for the DOC, said Minnesota’s five-year recidivism rate is almost 80%, meaning four out of five will commit another crime within five years. Prisoners who get programming would do better on the outside, and lower recidivism would save the state and community big bucks, he said.

Reducing the recidivism rate by 1% would reduce the department’s costs by an estimated $5 million. But the savings to society are much bigger, at $58 million in reduced costs to law enforcement, the courts and lost productivity.

When people are involved in programs or working while in prison, that improves their odds of finding a job when they get out by 15%, Duwe said. It also reduces the risk of death when they’re released.

Violence Free Minnesota, a statewide coalition working to end relationship abuse, supports the bill. Policy Program Manager Shenika Chambers said locking up abusers doesn’t make victims safer, because many remain in a  relationship with their victims. 

Schnell said people who are concerned about violent crime — which affects a small percentage of the population but has a profound impact on the victims — should support the bill, so people have less chance of failing when they leave prison.

“This is a massive change for our state and yet we believe it’s the right one if public safety is our core concern,” he said. “We cannot be corrections in name only. What we’re proposing with this model is that we’re corrections in practice.”

The bill was advanced to the Ways and Means Committee. 

Aiding and abetting murder

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, a former public defender, authored a bill, HF1406, that offers relief to people who are more like bystanders but get caught up in murder prosecutions. 

People like Jamiccia Donnerson, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 12 years because she was in the car when two 23-year-old men she was with killed another man inside a building. Donnerson testified Tuesday to a House public safety committee that she left her home at age 16 because she didn’t feel safe, and started dating an older man who committed the murder.

“I never murdered anyone,” she said.

Donnerson said she was placed in an adult facility and put on lockdown 23 hours per day, which took a toll on her mental health. She got her G.E.D., took college courses and was certified as a paralegal while imprisoned.

After being released, she thought she would live a normal life, but struggled to get an apartment and job because of her criminal record.

“No matter how much you try to explain to an employer or landlord, it says murder on my background,” she said. “They don’t believe you. You are what they say you are on your background check.”

She now has a job, a home and a baby on the way, but recently was rejected for life insurance because of her murder conviction.

“I’m still punished for murder I did not commit,” she said. “Somehow I get punished for a bad choice someone made 15 years ago. When will the punishment ever stop?”

The bill reaches back retroactively, so people in prison could have their sentences reduced or erased, and those who have already served their sentences could have them cleared from their record.

The bill is the culmination of a 2021 bipartisan task force that examined Minnesota’s aiding and abetting felony murder laws, which disproportionately affect Black people.

University of Minnesota law professor Perry Moriearty was on the task force, and said 80% of people charged with aiding and abetting murders between 2010 and 2019 were people of color — nearly half of them Black — and 63% were under age 25. Over 40% of the convictions were in Hennepin County.

Moriearty said aiding and abetting laws have long been controversial internationally because a person can be punished for murder without ever intending to kill, or even harm, anyone. They violate one of the core axioms of criminal law: That people should be held accountable for the harm they intended, and punished in accordance with their culpability, she said.

Novotny, a Republican on the committee that heard the bill Tuesday, said he disagrees on the culpability of getaway car drivers.

“We have not one consideration here of the victims,” he said. “I think if we spent more time worrying about the victims and preventing more victims I think that’d be a better place to focus our attention.”

The committee chair, Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, noted two victim advocacy organizations support the bill, as well as the family member of a homicide victim who felt the law was not appropriate to apply to their loved one’s case because the defendant didn’t have intent to commit a murder.

Frazier said the bill also requires communication with victims.

The bill was advanced to the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.

Five-year probation cap

House Majority Leader Jamie Long DFL-Minneapolis, is chief author of a bill, HF1607, that would limit probation to five years for most felonies. In 2020, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission limited probation to five years — except for homicides and sex crimes  — but Long’s bill would apply the limits retroactively. 

Long said while Minnesota prides itself on having the sixth lowest incarceration rate, it has the sixth highest rate of people on community supervision. Minnesota favors probation over incarceration, but Long said the balance has tilted so far that the average probation term is longer than the average prison term.

“When you combine these, we are not at all a low-punishment state,” Long said.

To which Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, later replied, “Is the goal to be a low-punishment state?”

Long said the goal should be “effective sentences.”

“Probation in Minnesota is not a light touch,” Long said. “It has real impacts on people’s lives.”

Between 2001 and 2021, over 36,000 people in Minnesota were sentenced to probation terms of more than five years.

Probation can be as long as 40 years, even though five-year probation caps are common in other states, including Missouri, Iowa, Alabama and Mississippi.  

Research shows that probation revocations are most likely to occur in the first three years of supervision: From 2002 to 2012, 1% of offenders had their sentences revoked after five years, Long said.

Probation officers have all the information they need to decide whether a person is fit to remain in society after five years, he said, so he questioned the use of keeping people on probation for decades. They take up time that a probation officer could better use to target higher risk people.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.