Before she was a teen, Tonja Honsey knew what it was like to be under court supervision. Decades — and several jail stints — later, she almost lost her youngest child while four months pregnant and behind bars on a probation violation.
"I say that I'm an incarceration survivor," Honsey said.
The 42-year-old St. Paul woman has since found sobriety and built a deep résumé as a criminal justice reformer, a different type of record that led Gov. Tim Walz to put her on the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
When Honsey arrives for her first meeting later this week she will join a new panel of jurists, law enforcement and legal officials tasked with recommending changes to the Legislature and the courts on how Minnesotans should be punished and rehabilitated for their crimes. Believed to be the first woman to serve on the commission after having served time behind bars, Honsey brings a wealth of experience helping mothers and pregnant inmates in the years since her return to society. She also brings direct knowledge, having bounced back from the receiving end of Minnesota's criminal justice system.
Growing up in what she describes as a dysfunctional family, Honsey found herself turned over to state-run institutions after repeatedly running away from home at an early age. She later cycled into selling drugs to make ends meet while on her own, and eventually using them to cope with childhood trauma.
Her record also includes charges for check forgery and theft. Her most serious drug crime was in Freeborn County: a 2002 conviction for second-degree controlled substance, after a clandestine meth lab bust near Maple Island.
She spent parts of each of her three pregnancies in a jail cell, at one point falling seriously ill while more than four months pregnant with her youngest child. Later, after the boy's birth, Honsey said she spent another 12 months in custody as she awaited sentencing and could interact with her child only by phone. He was then only 18 months old.
When they reunited, Honsey said, he didn't recognize her until she serenaded him with her version of "You Are My Sunshine."
Hers is a perspective, she said, that the sentencing commission could use.
"The shift needs to turn from people who have gone to school to learn about re-entry, to where people who are directly impacted need to be the ones leading," Honsey said. "And not just brought in for a focus group. We actually need to be leading the charge."
She will serve with several other new members. Walz also appointed Kelly Lyn Mitchell, who leads the University of Minnesota's Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, as new chairwoman of the commission. Abby Honold, a Minnesota rape survivor who has been a leading voice on working to improve how police handle rape cases, will be a new commissioner representing Minnesotans who have been the victims of a crime.
Walz said his appointments are intended to "ensure that a diversity of perspectives is represented when making these life-altering decisions."
Mitchell and Honold figure to factor prominently this year in discussions on the state's sex-crimes laws and a renewed focus on developing new guidelines on how to avoid geographic and racial disparities in probation sentencing. But while the commission is required to appoint crime victims to the board, it is not obligated to have representation from those who have been on the receiving end of the sentences imposed by the same judges the panel annually consults.
"Certainly there have been instances when formerly incarcerated individuals have testified before the commission, but that's different from having a seat at the table," said Mitchell, who previously served as executive director of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
Dan Cain, president of RS Eden, was the first former inmate to serve on the commission when he was tapped in its early stages in 1982. He eventually went on to chair the group. Minnesota was the first state to create a body to study sentencing policy in 1978 and, two years later, issued the nation's first set of sentencing guidelines for state court judges.
"I think that my being on the commission was recognition by the commission members that not everyone shared their worldview," said Cain, who is 47 years sober and was pardoned for a series of burglary and forgery crimes committed in the 1970s. "I think a mistake policymakers make often is they believe the same things that motivate and deter them are the same things that motivate and deter everyone."
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell is also a relatively new face to the group; his appointment in January earned him an automatic seat at the table. Schnell said he met previously with Honsey, whose work includes the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which provides parenting and pregnancy support to incarcerated women. Schnell said Honsey will be able to offer needed perspective on the collateral consequences that can occur when primary caregivers or pregnant women are locked up for nonviolent crimes or violating probation conditions.
"As a society, as a community, we have to really think about the implications of that," Schnell said.
Erica Gerrity, director of the Ostara Initiative, which is a hybrid nonprofit that includes the Doula Project and a similar effort in Alabama, said Honsey has helped build a leadership collective of formerly incarcerated women "to shape and create policy and systems change" that now extends to the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
Honsey's appointment "is representative of the necessary ideological shift in our state toward inclusivity in criminal justice reform that looks more closely at the root causes of mass incarceration and cultivates solutions actively with those directly impacted," Gerrity said.
Honsey now is also the executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a group that pays bail and immigration bonds for those who can't cover the cost. She recently returned from a trip to Norway to study that country's approach to incarceration. She hopes to return again soon to work on a documentary.
Honsey turned to criminal justice advocacy full-time last year after a half-dozen years in the construction industry. But had she had an easier path through life, Honsey would have gone to college and established a career sooner. Each time she sat in a cell, Honsey said, she wanted her life to be different. She wanted to find a workplace or a landlord that would look past her record.
"I know from my experience every time that I had been in jail, if I had one person fighting for me on the outside it would have changed my life," Honsey said. "So I vowed to be that one person."