After decades behind bars, Minnesota inmates serving life sentences must pin their hopes for freedom on just one man.

Paul Schnell, the newly appointed Department of Corrections commissioner who determines which offenders are granted supervised release, isn't sure that's fair — or wise.

"Should justice be dependent on who sits in the commissioner of Corrections role?" he said recently. "It's a huge responsibility. I certainly don't want to release anybody that's going to pose a public safety risk."

Schnell believes that responsibility should be shared. He's endorsing a bill now being debated in the Legislature to establish a five-member, bipartisan review board tasked with deciding lifers' fates.

If approved, it would roll back sole discretionary powers awarded to the DOC commissioner in 1982, when Minnesota abolished its formal parole board system.

That system "was really a product of the time," said Kelly Mitchell, executive director at the University of Minnesota's Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Concerns over the subjective nature of parole decisions and the possibility of unfair racial disparities prompted Minnesota's transition to its current determinate sentencing system — where there is no early release for good behavior.

That change left only a small number of lifers hanging in the balance, a percentage that lawmakers likely saw as too insignificant to retain a parole board for, Mitchell said. "It probably says that our Legislature was trying to be efficient and streamline the process," she said.

Minnesota is one of only four states where the commissioner maintains unilateral authority over who is freed.

Schnell says he's not trying to shirk the weighty obligation. He argues that asking an independent body of criminal justice experts to vote on those issues would reduce bias and better reflect the interests of Minnesotans.

"We believe that, in the interest of fairness, it is important that a broader segment of people have the opportunity to be included in this," Schnell testified earlier this month during a public safety committee hearing at the Capitol.

Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, was receptive to the idea. Granting a governor-appointed commissioner sole decisionmaking power, "politicizes a process that shouldn't be politicized," Lesch said.

The proposed new board would award equal voting power to five members, with the commissioner as chair. Panelists with at least five years' criminal justice or related experience would be appointed by leaders of both parties, serve staggered four-year terms and make release decisions by simple majority.

Rep. Marion O'Neill fought for an amendment that would require a supermajority, saying she was troubled by the potential for constant 3-2 splits along partisan lines.

"If you only have a vote of three, it would be very easy for one ideology — one political party — to really control that board," warned O'Neill, R-Maple Lake. "But if you have a supermajority … the voice of the minority would not be silenced."

But Safia Khan, the director of government relations for the DOC, counters that "the whole point [of having a five-member board] is to depoliticize it. These are not meant to be political operatives."

Hope as a motivator

Of the 610 lifers housed in Minnesota state prisons, roughly 75 percent — or 470 inmates — could rejoin society one day.

Many are first-degree murderers, who must serve a minimum of 30 years in prison before being considered for supervised release — Minnesota's version of parole.

But there is no guarantee they'll ever get out.

Those lucky few who do see freedom are under surveillance for life. And if former inmates fail to stay out of trouble or regularly check in with their assigned community service officer, they'll quickly find themselves back inside a cell.

Each month, Schnell studies a massive three-ring binder on those petitioning for release. Among other factors, he must weigh the inmate's risk of reoffending, progress in treatment, behavior while incarcerated, psychological evaluations and victim impact statements.

The offender appears via livestream to discuss their potential release plans. Schnell is then advised on how to proceed by deputy commissioners and the facility's warden, but it's ultimately his decision.

"If a person has demonstrated a sense of remorse for their involvement in the offense, they've participated in programming, they have complied with all the rules of the facility … what penological benefit is there in keeping them in our prison?" Schnell said. He has yet to grant any releases, but is expected to oversee about 70 requests this year.

Hope of rebuilding a life outside is a powerful motivator to improve, Schnell said. Without it, inmates have little incentive to remain social and engaged.

Shane Price, co-founder of a popular prison program that stresses personal accountability, regularly works with lifers.

"We like to say, 'It only takes 30 seconds to get 30 years,' " said Price, who runs the Power of People Leadership Institute. "Now you have 30 years to consider [what you've done]."

The program empowers offenders to make positive choices and teaches them that they are not defined by their worst mistakes. Price notes that many of his students have transformative self-discoveries around the 10-year mark. The street myths fall away, he said, and the men reshape their thinking about who they are as a person.

From inmate to mentor

Willie Lloyd Jr. is proof that radical change is possible.

At barely 18, the Minneapolis teen was sentenced to life in 1988 for his involvement in a gang-related shooting that killed a man. He was just two credits shy of his high school diploma and had recently become a father.

Over 24 years behind bars, Lloyd finished his degree, learned some carpentry skills and began to read voraciously.

He says the turning point came about five years in, when his mother died. "It never dawned on me that I wouldn't see her again," he recalled. "I decided from that point on I would be the best man I could be. I didn't want my son to go through what I had."

It took at least three hearings with former DOC Commissioner Tom Roy before Lloyd was granted supervised release in 2012. Now 49, he is an instructor for Summit Academy OIC in north Minneapolis, helping certify low-income and minority students in construction trades.

And he's a mentor for others navigating their re-entry into the community.

"It shows that with the right support, anyone can change," Lloyd said.

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648