A House bill heard late last week would revive a corrections institution that disappeared from Minnesota three decades ago—a state parole board.
House File 2128 comes from House Public Safety committee chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. It is supported by Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.
Schnell said the issue ties back to security in the prisons. He said some offenders serving life sentences have told him that hope of eventual release is important to them.
“Without hope and without fairness in the process, people oftentimes feel they have nothing left to lose,” Schnell said. “That impacts the safety of our staff and the safety of those inside of our facilities.”
As corrections commissioner, Schnell is solely responsible for deciding whether an inmate gets released after serving out the 30-year minimum term required in most life sentences.
In Minnesota, about 600 offenders currently serve life sentences, most of them with the eventual possibility of release. “We don’t think it’s sound policy to have one person make this decision,” Schnell told the House Corrections subcommittee on March 8.
Mariani’s bill would place that responsibility on a five-member “Indeterminate Sentence Release Board”—the new name for a parole board. It would consist of five members, four of them nominated by the Senate and House majority and minority leaders.
The Corrections commissioner would also be on the board and serve as its chair. Other members would serve staggered four-year terms. A simple majority vote—three of the board’s five members—would be sufficient to grant release, Schnell said.
Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, didn’t like the sound of that. She suggested a supermajorty—four votes—or even a unanimous vote would be better policy. The three-member board of pardons, a separate entity that includes the governor, attorney general and state Supreme Court chief justice, requires a unanimous vote.
“I just think that you probably want more than just a simple majority on something that’s that large of a decision,” O’Neill said. “I have a great caution with doing it that way.”
Schnell said he understands her point, but noted that the gravity of the decision is already significant. “And one person gets to make that decision,” he said. A shared decision made by a panel of well-qualified experts is “in the broadest interest of community justice,” he said.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, noted that when Minnesota got rid of its parole board in 1982, it was one of numerous states then reacting to reports about implicit bias, contradictions and discrepancies in the ways parole boards treated inmates’ cases.
“So it’s an interesting policy proposal to kind of go back to that type of establishment,” Zerwas said.
Minnesota’s parole board was not immune to criticism. A January 1982 Sentencing Guidelines Commission report to the Legislature, issued just six months before the board was abolished, charged that Minnesota’s parole board did a poor job predicting which inmates would be violent if released.
Many states opted for a system of determinate sentencing rather than relying on parole boards. In Minnesota, offenders are now sentenced according to state guidelines, which set sentencing ranges based on an offender’s history and severity of the crime.
None of that would change if the board were empaneled. The parole board would deal only with the “indeterminate sentences” that arise when an offender sentenced to life serves out the minimum and becomes eligible—someday—for release.
Mariani said he is less worried these days about the issues Zerwas raised. He said that new review processes and intervention strategies have been devised over the years that are more informed, particularly from a multicultural perspective, than they used to be.
“I think there’s comfort for me, in terms of where we’ve been going and in terms of that kind of wisdom, if you will, added into the review process,” he said.
Zerwas asked Mariani if he would consider changing his bill to grant the governor veto power over a majority parole board recommendation, should the governor decide it’s not in the public interest.
“I think that would provide some comfort,” Zerwas said. A future administration would then have opportunity, should a bad decision get made, to “put the train back on the tracks,” he said.
Mariani did not say no. But any such change would need to strike a balance so that release decisions don’t fall prey to pure politics, Mariani said.
“I’m absolutely willing to explore where that right balance might be,” Mariani said, “whether it’s in this proposal or perhaps an iteration of it. I’m certainly open to that.”
The legislation was laid over for possible inclusion in the forthcoming Judiciary omnibus bill.
It has no Senate companion.
After the hearing, Mariani said he is hopeful that his Senate counterpart, Judiciary and Public Safety committee chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, might be amenable to the bill and give it a hearing.
“I know that he has got a general predisposition for redemptive work,” Mariani said. “But he is a little more cautious, as a senator likes to be.”
Asked for his thoughts Monday, however, Limmer didn’t explicitly reject the idea. But he didn’t sound particularly warm to it.
“Parole boards are usually meant just to get the political person off of the responsibility of releasing someone into the public,” he said. “Therefore, the parole board doesn’t always have the accountability that a political person that’s elected to office has.”