Robert Tennessen, who grew up on a farm near Lismore in southwestern Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1968 after a stint in the Air Force. He had a private practice and served as a state senator from Minneapolis from 1971 to 1983.
Today, Tennessen, 79, is a volunteer commissioner representing Minnesota to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, known as the ULC. The commission urges states to reform “collateral consequences of conviction laws” that prevent ex-felons from getting jobs, housing, occupational licenses, loans and training.
He calls those laws “self-defeating and morally wrong” because they prevent former prisoners from supporting themselves and their families, lead to recidivism and shortchange the economy. An edited conversation:
Q: Why do you advocate reform of collateral consequences in Minnesota law?
A: As one of Minnesota’s Uniform Law Commission commissioners, it is my duty to seek passage of acts approved by the ULC. I am also very interested in finding ways to improve our criminal justice system.
Q: How does Minnesota law discriminate against those who have served their time?
A: Collateral consequences are “civil disabilities” imposed by automatic operation of law on persons who have been convicted of a felony and even lesser offenses. These are distinct from direct penalties imposed by a court following conviction for a crime. Some collateral consequences are justified. For example, we don’t want convicted pedophiles working around children. However, collateral consequences are applied indiscriminately, without consideration of facts and circumstances, and often have scant relationship to the offense or public safety.
Q: Do you have an example of an ill-applied collateral consequence?
A: We had a woman from Willmar testify on the reform bill a few years ago. She was a licensed home health care worker. The Department of Human Services jerked her license after she was convicted of statutory rape after she was out of high school and involved with somebody 26 months younger than her. She lost her job because that’s a felony. It was ridiculous. She wasn’t a threat to anyone. She’s married now. She’s struggling without that job.
Q: What’s the bigger picture here?
A: In 1982, when I was in the Minnesota Senate, there were more than 1,800 inmates in Minnesota prisons. Now there are over 10,000. A lot of the increase is the result of excessively long sentences and newly created crimes. If you have an arrest record, you are screwed.
Minnesota’s passage a few years ago of the ban-the-box employment law was helpful for former prisoners because it helps avoid upfront discrimination by employers. However, without considering facts and circumstances, the collateral consequences apply equally to conviction of a felony for burglary of a home and assault of the owner … as it can to a teenager who steals a car to go joy riding.
Our prisoners are disproportionately people of color. About 40 percent minorities. They are about 20 percent of the population. If former prisoners can’t get a job or housing, that increases the chances of parole violations, and perpetuates crime and poverty.
They and society are better off when employed, supporting families and paying taxes.
Q: What does the reform bill do that was sponsored this year by Republican Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud and Rep. Jerry Hertaus, also a Republican, from Greenfield?
A: It requires that defendants be informed that collateral consequences may apply to them when charged and before pleading or at the time of sentencing and when released from custody. It requires the state to prepare a list of collateral consequences in one place. Collateral consequences are not in the criminal code but scattered throughout the statutes. There are about 585 in Minnesota statutes and regulations.
Q: And how do the ex-prisoners get a break?
A: [The act] provides two forms of relief: a certificate of limited relief that can be applied for to the court … for purposes of employment, education, housing and occupational licensing. And a certificate of “restoration of rights” that can be applied for after maintaining a clean record for a period of years.
The [act] will improve public safety, make it easier for former felons to get training, work, housing and other benefits. Disqualifying 125,000 people under jurisdiction of the Minnesota Department of Corrections limits our workforce and Minnesota’s economic competitiveness.