In Minnesota, just over 600 inmates are serving terms of life in prison for the worst of the worst crimes — including murder. Although their sentences say life, about three-quarters of them are or will be eligible to petition to be released under supervision.
Under current state law, the one person authorized to grant or deny those requests is Minnesota’s commissioner of corrections. However, a welcome proposal being considered by the Legislature would shift that heavy responsibility to a panel. The bill makes sense: Deciding whether an inmate has changed and merits the opportunity to be returned to society shouldn’t rest with one person. And as some supporters of the change point out, granting a governor-appointed commissioner sole decisionmaking power can politicize the process.
The bill, HF2128, would resurrect a state parole board similar to what Minnesota had before the early 1980s. At that time, lawmakers adopted guidelines that were intended to make sentences uniform throughout the state. That change prompted the Legislature to later abolish the parole board.
Under the proposal, the board would have five members, with the corrections commissioner as its chairman. Panelists with at least five years of criminal justice or related experience would be recommended by leaders of both parties. Board members would serve staggered four-year terms and make decisions about the terms of release by majority vote, although it’s worth considering a proposed amendment that would require a supermajority.
It’s notable that the newly appointed corrections commissioner, Paul Schnell, supports recreating the board. In testimony before a House committee this month, he argued that using an independent body of criminal justice experts would reduce bias and better reflect the interests of Minnesotans.
Schnell expects to review about 70 petitions for release this year. That involves considering the inmate’s behavior while in prison and risk of reoffending, as well as psychological evaluations and victim statements.
“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.
To be clear, reconstituting a parole panel should not result in a wholesale return to case-by-case sentencing discretion across the board. The state’s determinate sentencing guidelines have served Minnesota relatively well.
Minnesota is one of only four states in which the corrections commissioner alone makes decisions to release lifers. According to the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, several states that at one point abolished discretionary release on parole later restored it. Since 2000, no state parole board has been abolished outright.
Legislation to bring back a Minnesota parole board has been offered before but didn’t make it into law. This year, Minnesota should join the overwhelming majority of states that have boards to bring more fairness and thorough vetting to decisions about supervised release of life-sentenced inmates.