One of the more surreal experiences of Gov. Tim Walz’s political career, as he describes it, is sitting beside the state attorney general and chief justice twice a year to preside over meetings of the Board of Pardons.
The DFL governor has listened to stories of countless Minnesotans convicted of crimes decades ago now seeking to get on with their lives, help others or just clear their names. One of the most dramatic involved the century-old posthumous case of Max Mason, a black circus worker believed to have been falsely accused of sexually assaulting a Duluth woman in 1920.
“For me, just the raw emotion that was in that room and the stories that range from heartbreaking to … redemptive,” Walz said, recalling his first pardon board meeting last June. “I think it’s safe to say, [it was] one of the most emotional days and one of the most trying days that I had as governor.”
Before the 2020 legislative session began, Walz said he was determined to change the state’s pardon process, making that a pillar of his administration’s criminal justice agenda. Walz said the idea stemmed from his first pardon board hearing, when he and his staff concluded that the way convicts learn about eligibility and apply for pardons is “random.” He also questioned the constitutionality of a rule requiring all three members of the board to agree on pardons.
Those who want to change Minnesota’s pardon process say both those factors explain why Minnesota typically grants fewer than a third of the 50 to 60 pardon applications it considers each year — lagging behind states including Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.
“I think we’ve got some work to do if we’re going to consider ourselves a state that is enlightened and believes in creating hope for people who have made serious mistakes,” said Attorney General Keith Ellison, who backs Walz’s reforms.
A bill making its way through the Minnesota House this year would create a clemency review commission modeled after South Dakota’s. The commission would be staffed by nine people — three each appointed by the governor, attorney general and chief justice — and would review applications four times each year.
The bill also would allow pardons to be granted on a majority 2-1 vote.
State Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill’s sponsor, argues that leaving pardon deliberations up to “three of the busiest people we have in the entire state” creates a “bottleneck problem” that slows the process for everyone seeking redemptive justice.
Long and his supporters also say that the board’s current policy of requiring unanimous consent is out of step with the state’s Constitution, which reads that the governor “in conjunction with the board of pardons” has the power to grant pardons. Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor who closely watches clemency policy around the country, interprets that phrase to mean that governors can make such decisions “in consultation with” and not with the approval of the attorney general and chief justice.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who reviews applications for the board, supports the reform proposal. But Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea is less sure.
“I think that re-examination is a good thing to do,” Gildea said in an interview. But, she added: “I think the pardon board in the sense that there are three of us working together, and we can be a check and balance on each other and hopefully a help to each other … is a good thing.”
Gildea, who is serving alongside her third governor on the board since being appointed by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty nearly a decade ago, described the current structure as “very affirming as a public official to sit with the governor and the attorney general and see how the other members of the board struggle together with these really important decisions.”
Changing the pardon system is not seen as a way to diminish widespread incarceration, which is the goal of many advocates for reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. For most of the past several decades, nearly all Minnesotans who received pardons had already served their time.
But Osler, a former federal prosecutor who runs a clemency clinic, said such changes can have profound effects on the people seeking to put their convictions behind them.
“Clemency isn’t meant to be a fix to mass incarceration,” Osler said. “But it is deeply meaningful for those people who will receive it, in that symbolically there is an aspect of mercy in the justice system.”
Osler testified in support of Long’s bill at a House committee hearing last month, as did Seth Evans, a chaplain at the Ramsey County jail. Evans, who also oversees a faith-based treatment program, described receiving his own pardon 17 years after a drug conviction.
Until then, he had to meet regularly with officials from the Department of Corrections and Health and Human Services to review his criminal past. He said he would need to go through “two huge boxes of files” to relive his past and “look at the person I was” to prepare for those meetings.
“I know that God has forgiven me for the things I have done, but I feel that finally the state of Minnesota has forgiven me and I don’t have to keep going back into those boxes and look at that person,” Evans said.