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Ramsey County District Court Judge Teresa Warner makes a pitch for 5 percent per year salary increase for judges during a Feb. 13 House Judiciary committee hearing. Warner appeared representing the Minnesota District Judges Association. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly )
Ramsey County District Court Judge Teresa Warner makes a pitch for 5 percent per year salary increase for judges during a Feb. 13 House Judiciary committee hearing. Warner appeared representing the Minnesota District Judges Association. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly )

In the Hopper: Judges’ pay; gang data; prison segregation

Judges’ pay: The Minnesota Judicial Branch and the Minnesota District Judges Association offered lawmakers competing judge pay-raise requests on Feb. 13.

The Judicial Branch, which presented its entire 2020-21 biennial budget proposal to the House Judiciary and Civil Law committee that day, wants a 3.5 percent per year salary hike for its judges.

That’s part of a requested 6.38 percent overall budget increase—a total $44.8 million in additional requested funds. The branch’s overall 2018-19 budget was $692 million.

The District Judges Association appeared the same day seeking a 5 percent per year raise for judges over the biennium.

In 2017, lawmakers granted judges a 2.5 percent per year compensation hike over two years. That barely kept pace with inflation, said Ramsey County District Court Judge Teresa Warner, the District Judges Association’s president.

Warner said a 5 percent increase is needed to recruit and retain a high-quality Minnesota bench, particularly in greater Minnesota, where it is hard to find qualified candidates. She said the bench also lacks candidates from the private sector, where top-notch lawyers tend to earn more than the $157,179 per year that Minnesota district court judges get now.

“This is about the future of the judiciary, and I want to make sure to make that clear,” Warner said. “This is about the people who are coming in.” If lawmakers granted her group’s request, judges would earn $173,290 annually starting in July 2020.

Anoka County Judge Jonathan Jasper, the association’s pension and benefits committee chair, also spoke. He said that he sacrificed half of his potential earnings, and significant family time, by becoming a district court judge.

“The question is how many people are willing to do that?” he said.

Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, a retired law enforcement officer who served on SWAT teams and a narcotics task force in the past, seemed to bristle at that. He said he and his children also have made significant sacrifices to serve in law enforcement and the military while earning perhaps half what judges currently make.

“Is there a point where we look at our salary and we become content?” he said.

“When is enough enough is the question of when are we seeing it affect recruitment and retention?” Jasper replied. “The salaries of the people we want to be judges are going up, and so the sacrifice becomes more. You’ve got guys like me who might be willing to make a huge sacrifice. But it’s hard to do.”

State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba, who presented the Judicial Branch’s budget, said in an interview that the Judicial Council stuck with the lower judicial salary request in order to be “realistic.”

“You can’t fund everything at the level that people want,” Shorba said. “We are very cognizant that we have to be realistic about our requests that we send over here.”

In addition to its $7.9 million request for judge salary hikes and health care costs, the Judicial Branch is looking for $1.7 million to create two new judge positions. It is not yet certain where they would be chambered.

The branch also wants $2.1 million to pay for mandated psychological services; $612,000 to sustain five treatment courts in four counties; $5 million of cybersecurity; and $27 million for overall branch-wide employee raises and health cost increases.

The presentation was information only, and no action was immediately taken.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, right, presents his gang investigative data bill during a Feb. 18 Senate floor session. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, sits to his right. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, right, presents his gang investigative data bill during a Feb. 18 Senate floor session. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, sits to his right. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Gang data: In just its second bill of the session, the Minnesota Senate on Monday voted 60-3 to extend the time that the state must retain investigative data on gang members if they maintain their gang affiliations while in prison.

Senate File 112 was authored by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its language was passed and included in last year’s vetoed Omnibus Prime bill, so it never went into effect.

Currently, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension purges criminal gang investigative data three years after an offender’s case is adjudicated. Limmer’s bill would extend that period to three years after the offender is released, if the corrections commissioner documents continued gang activity or identification while the inmate is in custody.

The bill is supported by the Corrections Department and various law enforcement organizations, Limmer told senators Monday. It passed quickly on the Senate floor, with no debate.

“If there is a sanction to have someone’s name kept on a criminal database after they get out, it would help not only law enforcement,” Limmer said. “It also tags this person—that he really is not contrite after he has been in prison.”

Senators Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, and Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, were the only no votes. Hayden said he voted no “just off principle.”

“I am just always a little concerned when we are profiling folks,” Hayden said. “We are looking at probation reform. We are looking at pulling some of these things back so that people can get on with their lives. And I am really concerned that this doesn’t help that.”

Eaton agreed. “It definitely targets primarily people of color,” she said. “They are unfairly charged with crimes more than whites anyway. I just think it perpetuates that stereotype.”

The bill’s companion, House File 339, is authored by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. Zerwas’ bill was given an informational hearing in the House Corrections subcommittee on Feb. 13, but has yet to receive a full committee vote.

Prison segregation: Another Zerwas bill would clarify that there is no 90-day cap on Minnesota prisoners serving stints in solitary confinement.

Corrections officers have bitterly complained that a program to limit the time prisoners can spend in isolation, instituted by former Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy, was poorly implemented. They have blamed the resulting 90-day segregation-term cap on a recent spike in assaults on corrections officers.

“There was not training provided to his staff and that they were not implementing it according to how the policy is written,” Zerwas said. “I’m being assured that, if implemented properly, staff would have known that 90 days, in reality, was the minimum and not the cap.”

Zerwas said that, as implemented, the segregation policy sent a message to inmates that they could get away with attacking officers. The only price they would pay, he said, is three months in isolation. “That’s obviously a huge, huge problem,” Zerwas said.

House File 493 includes House Corrections Subcommittee Chair Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, among its co-authors. It would allow an offender to be sent to segregation for using a weapon or inflicting harm on a corrections officer. Segregation would also be available for an inmate’s safety of the safety of other inmates.

After an offender serves 15 days in segregation, the bill would require the prison warden to review and sign off on the inmate’s case every 15 days. Once the inmate reaches 60 days in segregation, the corrections commissioner would have to step in and review the offender’s case once every 30 days.

The Zerwas bill, which he said was developed with cooperation from mental health advocates NAMI Minnesota, also would require offenders to undergo mental health screening. The screening would help to determine whether a hitch in isolation is contraindicated for the offender.

If a serious mental illness is discovered at that point, the offender could be transferred to a secure mental health facility instead of segregation.

The bill would also forbid the release of an inmate from prison directly out of segregation. Offenders would have to serve at least 30 days among the general prison population before being released. The legislation also would require detailed data collection on the effects of segregation and an annual report to the Legislature.

The bill is awaiting its first hearing. Considine said Monday that it might be heard in his corrections subcommittee on Feb. 27.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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