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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. This editorial was written on behalf of the board by Star Tribune Opinion intern Noor Adwan, a 2023 graduate of the University of Minnesota.


The Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act (MRRA), which passed the Legislature earlier this year and could take effect in as little as two years, would allow some incarcerated people to trim 17% off their sentences if they satisfactorily follow individualized rehabilitation plans. It's a dramatic but praiseworthy shift away from a largely punitive, one-size-fits-all approach to corrections.

The state Department of Corrections (DOC) recognized that prison time isn't just a punishment — it's also an opportunity for intervention. Instead of expecting incarcerated people to sit and wait for the years to pass them by, the MRRA empowers the agency to focus on rehabilitation and programming that should help the newly released integrate back into their communities.

While the plan is still in development, some estimate it could apply to around 7,400 people who are currently incarcerated in Minnesota.

"We know 95% of the people in our prisons are going to come out into neighborhoods across our state," DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell told editorial writers. "We want to make sure we're really putting attention, time and focus on what happens while somebody's involved with this system."

Those eligible to participate will receive plans tailored to their needs that may include substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, education or vocational training. This individualized approach is important, as it not only remedies the inadequate one-size-fits-all approach to corrections, but also incentivizes participation in programming and skill development.

Minnesota is among the minority of states that uses determinate sentencing. Because of this, sentence lengths are definite: No matter how well you act in prison, you'll serve the same amount of time as someone who acts out and violates rules.

"You and I each have a plan. You work your plan; you do well. I, on the other hand, don't. I fight; I refuse to participate in programs. Today, we'd walk out of prison the exact same day — it doesn't matter that you did well," Schnell said.

Once the MRRA takes effect, however, prisoners who demonstrate investment in their personal growth could be rewarded by way of a reduced sentence and supervision period. While some Republican lawmakers have branded the program a "get out of jail free card," those who do not show improvement would serve their time as usual.

The MRRA wouldn't just benefit inmates — incentivizing participation in programming would improve public safety. The Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), a similar program for nonviolent offenders that includes education, substance abuse programming and rigorous exercise, reduced participants' chances of reincarceration by 35%, and reoffending with a felony offense by 32%.

The MRRA also stands to save the state money — incarceration is expensive, and allowing individuals who have demonstrated personal growth to be released early could give the agency more financial room to invest in initiatives like victim support services. The CIP saved the DOC around $4,600 per participant, and officials hope to see similar savings with the MRRA. Those savings would then be split equally across four areas: victim support services, community supervision services, crime prevention initiatives and the state's general fund.

"The DOC's annual budget now is right around $1 billion a year," Schnell said. For that sum, he continued, "I would think — I don't care who you are, what side of the aisle you're on — you would want to produce the best outcomes possible, period."

The program could also increase safety in prisons. Idleness in prison increases the risk for frequent and violent misconduct, according to the DOC. That creates unsafe conditions for both inmates and correctional staff. Incentivizing participation in programming reduces idleness and could mitigate some of these conditions.

While only nonviolent offenders are eligible for the CIP, one of the only disqualifying factors from the MRRA is serving a life sentence. But Schnell is hopeful individualized rehabilitation programming could even benefit those who have committed more serious offenses, like sex crimes.

"We know that, for people who are involved in a sex offender treatment program, their risk of reoffending and reconviction goes down precipitously," Schnell said.

The MRRA also gives victims a greater say in the corrections process, Schnell said, as their input is considered in the development of offenders' rehabilitation plans. The DOC must also make a "reasonable effort" to notify victims if an offender is eligible to earn early release, and provide contact information for victim support services.

"The role of victims is part and parcel to this legislation," Schnell said. "Victims have a right to engagement and participation in this process."

The MRRA is a smart program with the potential to improve safety both inside and outside prisons while saving the state some cash in the process. The majority of those in Minnesota prisons today will be released at some point or another. Making sure they have the skills they need to integrate back into their communities after they serve their time is a no-brainer.