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“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.”
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042