Families and advocates of prison inmates in Minnesota are frustrated that a new program to offer "earned" early release to some inmates will take up to two years to be implemented.
The Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act (MRRA) will allow some inmates a chance to shave an additional 17% off their sentences if they complete an individualized rehabilitation program. The new policies go into effect Aug. 1.
Department of Corrections (DOC) officials say it will likely take up to 24 months to fully set up the program before prisoners can be considered for early release, or award supervision reductions to those in compliance after leaving prison.
Advocates say qualified inmates should be released immediately in August.
"If people have already qualified, let them out and give taxpayers a break," said Trina Murray, the mother of an inmate, at a recent protest at the DOC headquarters. "Let these people get out and get educated and be employed."
DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said the department made it clear from the beginning the program would not be ready in August. He noted that the policies for MRRA and what counts as credit have yet to be established.
"This is not about ticking off the boxes and saying, 'OK, they've done some stuff, let's let them out,' " Schnell said. "All of the policies and all of the procedures have to be made crystal clear in terms of how this is going to operate."
The DOC describes its new program as "earned incentive release," where inmates work with staff to create individualized plans. Participants in MRRA first have to complete "robust" risk assessment to formulate their rehabilitation goals and their plan, but those have not started yet, DOC spokesman Andy Skoogman said in an email.
If those plans are completed, inmates can shave time off their sentence. It is not available to inmates serving life sentences.
Possible requirements include substance-use disorder treatment, mental health counseling, vocational skill training and education, the MRRA website shows. It can also consider past accomplishments. The supervision reductions would result in one fewer month of supervised time for every two months in compliance.
Legislators instructed the DOC to consult with public safety groups, prosecutors, public defense, faith-based organizations and victims groups before the program becomes active, Schnell added.
The final bill text lists 11 categories of groups the DOC must consult with, such as the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition and Violence Free Minnesota. It states that the DOC must develop a "comprehensive" assessment process for inmates by Jan. 1 2025.
"We want to be really clear: Our objective in this is smart public-safety policy, with emphasis on public safety," Schnell said.
Organizer David Boehnke from the Home for Good Coalition said he and others don't believe that it should take that long to find out who deserves credit for earned release.
"Incarcerated people shouldn't be punished for them not making a plan," he said.
Murray said she thinks it's "inhumane" that inmates who may have already met requirements should have to spend an additional year or two in prison before benefitting from MRRA. Her son, David Hodges, has spent 16 years so far in prison, and Murray hopes the new act can help him get out sooner and so he can help raise his seven children.
"He doesn't want his children to be in the same place as him," Murray, 57, said last month at a protest at the DOC headquarters over the delay. "He wants to correct some of the behavior that he [modeled] to them as a father, and he needs to show them that it's OK to have lifestyle changes."
Murray added she's confident her son, who's behind bars for two sexual conduct convictions, has already done enough to earn release through MRRA. That includes going to therapy, lining up a job and housing, and completing educational courses, she said.
More than 30 people protested last month at DOC headquarters, after Schnell canceled a meeting with advocates and family members of incarcerated people.
Boehnke said his group estimates 1,300 people who have been working toward the goals would miss out on earned release if MRRA is delayed and enacted in 2025, and 6,700 people who would miss out on supervision reduction.
"Why are they waiting almost two years to get people that good time they've already earned?" he said to the protesters.
Skoogman said the department didn't know how the coalition came up with its estimate and whether it is correct.
Asked why Schnell canceled the meeting with the advocates and others who protested, Skoogman said that some from the group have been providing "misinformation" to incarcerated people and "encouraging them to organize in ways that are not beneficial to the safe and orderly operation of our correctional facilities."
Schnell said it resulted in inmates organizing against the DOC.
"That doesn't benefit them, it doesn't benefit the department, and it certainly doesn't promote safety in our correctional facilities," he said.
Boehnke disagreed with the comment about spreading misinformation. He said organizers circulated a proposed list created by inmates for what past accomplishments could count towards sentence reductions, but that it was never advertised as being the law.
"We specifically said, 'These are some people's ideas,' " Boehnke said. "We're trying to make it easier for the DOC because they say they had no plan."
Minnesota is among 12 states that don't provide inmates an opportunity to shorten their sentences. Under current law, most inmates serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison regardless of what they do, and spend the final third on supervised release.
The program is expected to create savings by reducing inmates' sentences. It could result in $4,600 less spent per inmate over their sentence, according to the MRRA website. The savings will go into services for victim support, crime prevention, intervention initiatives, supervision services, correctional programs and the state general fund, the website shows.
Schnell said considering that 95% of Minnesota prisoners are expected to leave prison at some point, developing this program was important from a public safety standpoint, incentivizing inmates to work on themselves so they are less likely to reoffend upon release.
"We need to make sure that they participate in programs and services that ... reduce risk and improve the likelihood of their success in the community," he said.