A national movement to rethink crime and punishment is gaining a foothold in Minnesota, pushing the state toward policies that help ex-offenders rebuild their lives in an age of instant background checks and eternal Internet mug shots.
The most recent example is the “ban the box” legislation, passed earlier this year by a bipartisan coalition, which eliminates the criminal history checkoff box on most private sector job applications. The bill is just one in a series of small victories that have Democrats and Republicans working together to give felons a second chance.
“I think this is without any doubt the most bipartisan work getting done at the Capitol right now,” said Sarah Walker, founder of the Second Chance Coalition, which is leading the charge.
Still on the agenda in Minnesota are proposals to permanently seal some old criminal records and to more quickly restore felons’ right to vote. Big-name support for criminal justice reform comes from a Texas-based conservative group, “Right on Crime,” which sports endorsements from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and seeks to promote personal responsibility and take a chunk out of the corrections monolith.
“All too often, once someone is labeled as a criminal, it follows them everywhere they go, regardless of what they do with their life after that,” said first-term state Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, who has made such issues a priority.
Dehn, now 55, knows about being labeled. As a teenager he was addicted to drugs and in 1976, at 19, pleaded guilty to felony burglary. He served in the Hennepin County workhouse and went through treatment.
In 1982, Gov. Al Quie and the state Board of Pardons granted Dehn a “pardon extraordinary,” which nullifies the conviction, purges the offender’s record and relieves the recipient of having to disclose the conviction except in special legal circumstances. His slate essentially wiped clean, Dehn began studying architecture at the University of Minnesota and became active in Minneapolis neighborhood development. He says he has been “sober for 36 years.” Now a design and sustainability consultant, Dehn was elected to the Minnesota House in 2012.
Dehn said he had “tons of advantages” that other ex-offenders do not. “My offense happened in the ’70s, long before the Internet,” he said. “And also, I’m white — being white gives me a huge advantage right from the get-go.”
Today, living down a past is much harder.
“If you are convicted of misdemeanor theft when you were 19, that record would still be coming up, every time you apply for a job,” said Mark Haase, co-chair of the Second Chance Coalition. “You wouldn’t get certain jobs because of a 30-year-old misdemeanor.”
Mary Hedrick of Minneapolis said her son, Allen, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a boy and needed help throughout high school. At the age of 20, he gave a friend a ride to a pawnshop, which the friend robbed. Allen, who his mother believes was taken advantage of due to his disability, was charged with a felony. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to a burglary charge that eventually was reduced to a misdemeanor, but it is the felony and the word “burglary” that pop up when he applies for jobs.
“They see that felony on there and it’s like, forget it,” Mary Hedrick said. Allen added: “It’s the fact that they see ‘burglary’ on the background check in big bold letters.”
A Minneapolis man named Juan, who asked that only his first name be used, said he had good jobs before he became involved in an incident with his ex-wife. No physical violence was involved, according to the criminal complaint, but he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of terroristic threats. He served time in jail and now is striking out at finding employment.
“They still have the checkoff at the top of the application,” he said. “Convicted of a felony? If you lie, is no good. If you tell the truth, is no good as well.”
Rep. Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer, became a “second chance” convert when he was running a warehousing business. Members of the coalition approached him about hiring men with criminal records. He did so, was pleased with the result and became a believer.
In interviews with the applicants, he said, he could discuss the crime and its context. “Have they atoned for their crime? What kind of recommendations are they getting from law enforcement and second chance coalition members?”
“It is the answer to most of the ills in life, when we have a meaningful job,” Leidiger said.
Organizers from Right on Crime, a project of a conservative Texas think tank, met with criminal justice advocates in Minnesota earlier this year. Their agenda, according to Marc Levin, the group’s policy director, has been to downsize Texas’ huge prison system by expanding drug courts, strengthening the probation system and improving out-of-prison programs.
“We’ve brought in a lot of prominent people to support the idea of criminal justice reform from a conservative perspective of personal responsibility [and] fiscal restraint,” he said.
Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, sees the left and right coming together over the costs and effects of the nation’s world-leading prison population. While he believes public safety should remain the top priority, Pearlstein said the “second chance” concept is essential to strengthening troubled communities.
“In the inner cities in particular, we have to make it so more guys … can cleanse their names, if they have records, to get a decent job, build a career, and be marriageable,” he said.
The issue of more quickly restoring voting rights, which Minnesota does not do until a felon has completed the terms of probation and is “off paper,” is a touchier subject. Walker, of the Second Chance Coalition, calls it a vital goal at a time when up to one in five African-American men in the state are disenfranchised. Dan McGrath, of the Minnesota Majority, which earlier proposed a failed voter ID amendment to the state’s constitution, said he is “concerned about expanding the [voting] franchise to career criminals.”
While voting rights may be a partisan battle, Dehn, who is carrying that bill, said the thrust of criminal justice reform has broad appeal. Some legislators have cited their religious beliefs in personal redemption as well as their involvement with prison ministries.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” Dehn said. “That’s a humanity issue.”