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Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy says the public safety-judiciary conference committee’s proposed budget would leave him unable to afford already-negotiated employee contracts. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy says the public safety-judiciary conference committee’s proposed budget would leave him unable to afford already-negotiated employee contracts. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Q&A: Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy

The public safety-judiciary conference committee wrapped up the major part of its work last week. Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy was a steady presence at those long hearings.

Corrections won’t get everything Roy or Gov. Mark Dayton wanted. The bill falls $88 million short of the governor’s $1.2 billion biennial corrections request. While that is on par with the base budget, Roy says it would leave him unable to afford already-negotiated employee contracts and force as many as 250 layoffs.

On May 3, Minnesota Lawyer sat with Roy for a half-hour conversation. This is an edited transcript.

Minnesota Lawyer: In a conversation you and I had recently, you seemed to fault yourself for failing to make your case with legislators this year. What do you think you did wrong?

Inmates proceed through a cellblock at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater in this undated photo. (Photo: Minnesota Department of Corrections)

Inmates proceed through a cellblock at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater in this undated photo. (Photo: Minnesota Department of Corrections)

Tom Roy: This is a really complex proposition and it is necessary to have a strong belief in the research. My failure, I think, was not conveying a message consistently and simply enough so that there is understanding. We have been challenged, however, that when we do present data and research it is often met with skepticism. [Research] doesn’t necessarily meet a need for an immediate response to crime.

ML: The omnibus bill sent forward no longer includes the $7.9 million that the original House bill included for DOC salary increases. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said the lack of increased funding might force you to lay off 200 to 250 employees. Is that true?

TR: That is true. And when you lay off people, you have associated costs of unemployment, of course, and human resources costs. But the real cost is human cost. We have people who have committed their careers and lives to correctional work, which is really tough work. And the deficit that we would have to deal with is significant. It would be a dark day that I would not want to visit, to give out those notices.

ML: But your base funding remains status quo from the previous biennium. Why would you have to lose people?

TR: Well, we have contract obligations that we have to observe. Those are already-signed contracts. And we have pension obligations. Personnel costs are huge for the department, because we have 4,300 employees—we are the biggest general-fund department in the state. It is also complicated by the fact that we have some essential employees who we can’t lay off, such as corrections officers. But we have lots of program staff, teachers, counselors and administrators who are not essential. Unfortunately, they would find themselves on the chopping block.

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy makes the case for his budget during a March 22 legislative hearing. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy makes the case for his budget during a March 22 legislative hearing. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

ML: Sen. Ron Latz [DFL-St. Louis Park] told me that if you have to make cuts that deep, you actually might have to lay off corrections officers, too.

TR: Yes, if we eliminated a whole prison, for instance.

ML: That might be a possibility?

TR: The deficit we are facing is more than the operating budget of an entire prison. Typically, in a Minnesota prison, we spend around $40 million in annual operating costs. The amount in this proposed budget is leaving us with about $50 million to $55 million of need.

ML: Given all the added criminal statutes and increased punishments introduced in this bill, do you sense that some lawmakers feel Minnesota has fallen behind other states by keeping its incarceration rates low, rather than seeing that as a success story?

TR [12-second pause]: I think it is a popular notion that increased incarceration results in positive public safety results.

If one is only looking at incapacitation as a public-safety strategy, it is very short-sighted. Certainly while people are locked up, they cannot commit crimes. But when you consider that 95 percent of all those locked up will return to a community, one would hope that they return in healthier state and less likely to commit future crimes.

We agree that incapacitation works. But we also know that when the intrinsic motivation of offenders is improved, when they see that generally their lives improve if they are crime-free, then we have long-term public safety results. Incapacitation really is short-term; increasing offenders’ ability to navigate life is a long-term public safety strategy. But that is a really hard sell. I think, generally speaking, citizens believe that the only response to crime is punishment.

ML: How disappointing was it to see the House’s original offer of $1.6 million for mental health services disappear from the bill?

TR: Well, that was one of the few bright spots in that initial House offer. The improvement that can be realized through those services is great, and in terms of our obligation to provide a safe and healthy environment, mental health positions are really important. I am committed to not putting staff at risk and many of those folks have demonstrated harmful behavior to themselves and others.

ML: There was a fairly major tweak to the bill’s Appleton prison language. You would no longer have to enter into a purchase or lease contract if you identify a need for bed space, but would have to conduct a fair-market appraisal of the site? Was that good news?

TR: It doesn’t tie our hands to the degree that the previous proposal did. I think it is palatable.

ML: The conference co-chair, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the book on the omnibus negotiations is not closed and he hopes to influence those discussions. Is that a hopeful sign?

TR: I agree that the book isn’t closed. We have three weeks to get some important work done. I am appreciative that legislators continue to inquire and to seek more information. We are anxious to present that information. It is encouraging that legislators are digging deeper into some of these issues.

ML: How do you see things playing out from here?

TR: There seem to be different levels of conversations going on right now. Commissioners are tasked with getting the best information to legislators and promoting what we think is good policy and a manageable budget. But I think overarching at this point are what I will call the mega-issues—taxation and transportation and those things. I think in the next three weeks the rubber is going to meet the road and it is going to get very serious.

ML: What do you see as your role in those negotiations?

I will make the case that we contribute to that sense of well-being, regardless of political affiliation. I will also make the case that we have been good stewards of the public’s money and that the governor’s budget is doable. It will have excellent results, if we are given the resources.

ML: Unless you are retained by a subsequent governor, the likelihood is that you have about a year and a half left in this job. How would you assess your performance?

TR: The difficulty of this work is not realized until you put your butt in the chair. The myriad issues that come across my desk in a given day are incredible—from milk prices to serious medical conditions to employee conduct. But I think I have done the best I can every day. That’s all I ask of my staff: Did you do your best? Most days I go home feeling that I did.

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