As another legislative session heads into overtime, conference committees now face the task of turning a two-page budget framework into reality, sorting through and reconciling the details of two very different visions for the state.
On the surface and in the headlines, the partisan divide seems unbridgeable. And, after a year of unrest spurred by multiple breaches of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, the issues around public safety, police accountability, and criminal justice have become ground zero for unproductive hyper-partisan rhetoric.
With one constitutional deadline already passed, now is the time for a pragmatic focus on what unites us, and to pass a limited set of proposals supported by both criminal justice activists and law enforcement officials.
Minnesota has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country, yet almost 40 percent of those exiting our state prisons will be convicted of another felony in just three years. This rate has stayed relatively consistent over the past decade. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. We must seek to incentivize — not inhibit — the success of those seeking a second chance. These proposals do that. They focus on eliminating both unnecessary barriers to opportunity and unnecessary interactions with law enforcement. They help focus law enforcement’s role to protect and serve, not dilute their mission by asking them to collect debts or raise revenues.
First, the Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act would improve second chances for those in our state’s justice system. It would foster a more constructive culture in prison and community supervision programs by expanding evidence-based treatment and educational programming, directing resources to those who need help the most, allowing participants to earn release credits, and incentivizing compliance within community supervision. Notable for inclusion in a budget omnibus bill, the proposal doesn’t require upfront spending, but allocates 75 percent of the resulting savings from this policy change toward victim services, improving community supervision, and expanding evidence-based prison programming. This bill is the kind of approach we should see more of across state government.
This would build on one success story from the regular session, when Legislators approved a bill to assist those released from a state facility in obtaining their Social Security card, birth certificate, necessary medication, and driver’s license or other identification cards, all vital elements in securing housing and employment and avoiding homelessness. With more than 10 percent of those coming in and out of state facilities experiencing homelessness, we can more effectively assist people in achieving success with proactive mitigation steps than by re-incarcerating those already stuck in a bad situation.
Court fines and fees have a significant impact on individuals with limited or no financial ability to pay. Lack of payment of fines and fees can result in other adverse actions against individuals that lead to a cascading set of unintended consequences and run counter to efforts to ensure public safety. Fines and fees are often evaluated by policymakers from the perspective of revenue raised, yet there are other costs and tradeoffs that should be considered. For example, the time law enforcement spends on individuals with outstanding fines and fees could be better targeted at more critical public safety needs. Every minute spent by law enforcement on collecting fines or fees is a minute they are not focused on solving or preventing crime in our communities.
The driver’s license suspension reform (being carried separately in the transportation bill) seeks to end this reality. Why does the state make it harder for someone who already can’t afford the cost of unpaid tickets and fees by taking their driver’s license away, forcing them to choose between driving illegally and keeping their job? Under these reforms, dangerous and unsafe drivers would still be held to account, but suspensions would only be tied to driving behavior and public safety, not to someone’s ability to pay.
There is also strong bipartisan understanding that the state’s asset forfeiture process is broken. Legislators have the chance following years of negotiations among stakeholders to pass compromise language that better protects Minnesotans’ property and due process rights while preventing most claimants from being caught up in this convoluted system in the first place.
Under current law, over 95 percent of people with seized property never make an attempt to recover it, even if they are never convicted or charged with the suspected crime that led to the seizure in the first place. These reforms would refocus use of civil forfeiture on the assets and profits of large-scale criminal enterprises, while limiting its disproportionate use against those in low-income communities.
We’ve made some important progress on these issues — nationally with the prison reforms included in the First Step Act, and with passage of policing reforms here in Minnesota last summer. The first step is undoubtedly the hardest to take, but legislators shouldn’t be content to stop there. We have a long way to go toward respecting the human dignity and constitutional rights of all our citizens.
Jason Flohrs is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Minnesota.
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