Senate passes major public safety bill, gun safety measures; Republicans outraged

The bill includes gun safety measures, overhauls the state prison system, and limits no-knock warrants

By: - May 12, 2023 4:41 pm

A senator leaves the Senate chamber on Monday, March 27, 2023. (Nicole Neri for the Minnesota Reformer)

The DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate passed a massive $880 million public safety bill — including new gun restrictions and strict limits on no-knock warrants — late Friday on a party-line vote after a marathon floor debate.

The DFL-majority House is expected to take it up next week and if passed, the bill goes to the governor.

Although gun control drew much of the focus, the bill has far-reaching provisions that seek to make the prisons system more rehabilitative and thereby cut recidivism. 

The bill allows family members or police to petition judges to take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. It also requires background checks for private gun sales, such as at gun shows. And it has increased penalties for converted machine guns.

Previously, the House passed the gun control provisions, but they stalled in the Senate, where swing-district members declined to say if they’d support the measures. Then, Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, and Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, said earlier in the week they’d support the gun regulations, and Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, joined them on the floor. The DFL only has a one-vote majority in the Senate.

Republicans accused Democrats of adding the background checks and red flag language without public notice or testimony, and releasing the conference committee report at 2 a.m.

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, claimed some county sheriffs won’t enforce the red flag portion of the bill allowing judges to take guns away from people deemed dangerous, saying, “Today it’s your guns, tomorrow it’s your Zamboni or your gas stove or whatever is decided to be the demon of the day.”

The National Association for Gun Rights called it outrageous that a committee comprising solely of Democrats added the gun provisions into a “must pass” funding bill without testimony from gun owners — which is something they’d expect to happen in “some totalitarian hellhole, not in St. Paul.”

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL- St. Louis Park, cited a KSTP survey earlier this month that showed both bills are “enormously popular among Minnesotans,” with 74% supporting background checks on private gun sales and 63% supportive of the red flag law.  

The bill also bans police who have search warrants from entering homes without knocking first, with limited exceptions.

Gov. Tim Walz’s public safety proposal doling out crime-fighting cash to cities, counties and tribal governments based on population, is likely to show up in the tax bill, but reduced from Walz’s $550 million to $300 million, Latz said.

“We’re trying to find a way,” he said.

Prisoners could earn release sooner

The bill also includes a massive overhaul of the state’s approach to prisoners. The centerpiece Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act makes the corrections system more rehabilitative than punitive.

The act allows prisoners to get out earlier and shortens their community supervision if they participate in rehabilitation programs tailored to their needs, like mental health and substance use disorder. Thirty-eight other states have similar “earned release” policies.

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 allows prisoners to get out when half their sentence has been served if they complete programs and behave well in prison.

Republicans have criticized the program as a “get out of jail free” bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said in a statement, “We didn’t think the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ public safety bill could get any worse, but somehow Democrats found a way.” 

Aiding and abetting

The bill limits cases in which people can be convicted of aiding and abetting two types of felony murder.

This is meant for people who are more like bystanders but get caught up in murder prosecutions — such as a person unwittingly sitting in what turns out to be a getaway car.

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 — someone.

The bill reaches back retroactively, so people in prison could have their sentences reduced or erased, and those who have already served their time could have the convictions 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.

Five-year probation cap

The bill limits probation to five years for most felonies — except for homicides and sex crimes — as already enacted by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission in 2020.

A major difference: The bill’s probation limits would be applied retroactively. 

Minnesota favors putting people on probation over locking them up, to the point where the average probation term is longer than the average prison term.

A recent Prison Policy Initiative report said Minnesota is a so-called progressive state — with fewer people in prison than the national average — but ranks “among the most punitive in the nation when you look at its full system of correctional control.”

About 8,000 people are in prison, but 82,000 people are on probation. Given that, they rank Minnesota 12th in the nation for “mass punishment,” with 1,841 per 100,000 of its residents under confinement or community supervision. Minnesota has a larger share of its population in the corrections system than Alabama, although a Minnesota resident is far less likely to be incarcerated.

Free phone calls for prisoners, power for police oversight boards  

The bill also includes a broad range of major public safety initiatives, including:

  • The Clean Slate Act, which would make it easier to get a criminal record expunged for people who qualify. 
  • More power for civilian police oversight boards.
  • A ban on the state using private prisons.
  • $10 million for the prison system’s expected increase in population.
  • $3.1 million in annual ongoing funding to make phone calls free for prisoners to keep them connected to the outside world, which reduces recidivism.
  • About $55 million to modernize the 35-year-old statewide public safety data system — which employs archaic spreadsheets to track data, paper forms for documentation, and fax machines to share critical information.
  • $3.6 million to recruit and retain corrections officers. 
  • $70 million in one-time funds spread over five years for community crime and violence prevention grants for things like victim services, prison re-entry, homelessness assistance, restorative justice, violence interruption and juvenile diversion.
  • $10 million to improve the training and availability of non-police crisis response teams.
  • Elimination of fees for uncertified copies of civil and criminal court documents obtained both online and in person.
  • A ban on people involved with white supremacist, hate or extremist groups from getting licensed as peace officers — codifying rules adopted by the police licensing board.
  • Doubling the budget for youth intervention programs and allocating $5 million for a Ramsey County juvenile facility.
  • Increasing the penalty for organized retail theft crime rings.
  • Increased funding for civil legal services and a 50% increase in funding for public defenders.
  • Increased funding for crime prevention programs in the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
  • Increased funding for the Office of Justice Programs including significant investments in youth intervention programs.
  • No longer requires a unanimous vote from the state pardons board for clemency (two out of three would have to vote yes) and sets up a commission that would review clemency petitions and make recommendations to the pardons board.

Democrats ecstatic, Republicans outraged

Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, was ecstatic about the budget when it was announced Wednesday, declaring, “I think this is the best budget I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Latz called the public safety deal “transformative” with game-changing funding increases.

“I think this is a really well-balanced approach to criminal justice in Minnesota,” he said Wednesday.

House public safety committee chair, Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, said Democrats set out to build trust in the criminal justice system — which she said is “failing on many levels” — because if people don’t trust it, victims don’t report crimes, witnesses don’t come forward and juries don’t trust the process.

“I’m really proud of this budget because I think it really helps restore the trust in our system that we need in Minnesota so that everybody can stay safe,” she said.

Republicans blasted the bill and the conference committee that produced it.

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, issued a statement noting there were no Republicans on the conference committee, and accused Democrats of shutting Republicans out of the conference committee and conducting negotiations in secret. 

“Democrats are making a mockery of our conference committee process, shutting out the voices of 48% of Minnesotans,” she said.

Republicans complained that the bill no longer includes a state fraud unit, $1 million for a Heroes Helping Heroes first responder mental health program and wellness grants and grants for police body cameras.

Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, said as one of the first Black women senators and the daughter of an immigrant, she’s honored to have championed reforms, especially in areas where people of color have been disproportionately harmed by the system.

“We’re really supporting best practices here,” she said during a Friday press conference.

This story was updated at 10:13 a.m. Saturday to reflect Friday’s vote.

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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.