A longtime battle in Minnesota to overhaul criminal sentencing laws is getting a new boost now that President Donald Trump and a broad coalition of congressional members are looking to make significant changes to the nation’s justice system.
The First Step Act would revamp much-criticized federal policies of the 1980s and ’90s that ballooned the nation’s prison population while locking up black offenders at disproportionately higher rates than white offenders. The proposal also would make it easier for former inmates to get the skills and jobs they need to stay out of prison.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Matt Hagen, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. But, he cautioned, “it’s going to be a slow process. ... Trying to find some common ground isn’t going to be easy.”
Trump said the program will establish a better pathway for inmates to find jobs and a stable income, which ultimately will make communities safer. He acknowledged that the economy, and the historically low unemployment, is a major driver in the push for changes.
“The people that are hiring these people are saying some incredible things,” Trump said. “They are getting phenomenal reviews, so that’s really good. So the economy is a big factor.”
Some local advocates remain skeptical that congressional leaders have the political will to implement big, meaningful changes. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been criticized by the ACLU, among others, for foot-dragging on the bill, which would ease some automatic sentencing rules for drug and other offenses.
“Criminal justice reform, while we would like to see it faster, I think it’s more of an evolution than a revolution,” said Sara Jones, executive director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota.
One of the bill’s most far-reaching changes would make retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the huge disparity in penalties for possession or sale of crack cocaine and the prison time for powder cocaine crimes. Since crack dominated inner-city drug markets, the tougher sentencing rules enacted in the 1990s hit blacks much harder than powder cocaine users, who tended to be white.
Nationally, the proposal could affect tens of thousands of current inmates and future offenders. In Minnesota, estimates about how many of the 3,106 inmates currently incarcerated in federal prisons are less precise.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of the bill’s co-authors, noted that the proposal has united a diverse coalition of Democratic-leaning advocacy groups and conservative donors like the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
“The federal sentencing and prison reforms in this bill have broad support, including from national police organizations because they know this legislation keeps significant penalties in place for violent offenders,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
‘Evolution, not revolution’
For advocacy groups across the state, the proposal is sparking cautious optimism.
Many of the proposals being discussed at the federal level have already taken hold in Minnesota, where a push has been underway for years to revamp the state’s criminal justice system, said Kelly Mitchell, former executive director for the commission who runs the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute.
“A lot of those things are things we’re already doing, especially here in Minnesota,” said Mitchell.
The topic continues to be intensely debated in Minnesota. Earlier this year, nearly 100 law enforcement officials, including Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and St. Paul police Chief Todd Axtell gathered in St. Paul to discuss policy proposals to address disparities in the criminal justice system.
Elianne Farhat, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, said she was “deeply concerned” by certain provisions in the federal bill, including the continued use of risk-assessment algorithms to sentence offenders. Some studies have suggested those algorithms are racially biased, she said. Farhat said she is also concerned the measure drops a provision to make repeal of the federal “three strikes” rule retroactive. The law significantly increases prison sentences for those convicted of a third felony offense, often guaranteeing a life sentence.
“We have to make sure that the thing that we are passing doesn’t make things worse, and continues to perpetuate some of the worst race and class disparities in sentencing,” Farhat said. “This just is not a bill that we have confidence will make the changes we need at the federal level or trickle down in a meaningful or just way to states.”
Either way, the issue is likely to draw more heated debate in Minnesota.
Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke noted that “we have a wave of reform-minded freshman legislators moving to the [Minnesota] Capitol next year.”
Early on, some law enforcement groups had concerns that the federal proposal would result in the premature release of dangerous criminals.
Andrew Mohring, a partner at the law firm Ciresi Conlin, hopes the proposal would open the door to more and deeper reforms in the future, both on the federal and state levels. He noted the it contained “some meaningful, but comparatively modest” reductions in mandatory-minimum sentences.”
“One would hope that there would be a ‘Second Step Act,’ ” he said.