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Bar Buzz: ACLU offers ‘smart justice’ blueprint

The ACLU thinks it can save Minnesota $411 million and reduce its prison population by almost 5,500 by 2025.

All the state has to do is follow its “Blueprint for Smart Justice Minnesota,” which includes some specific action items:

  • Legalize marijuana. Because of what it describes as the known racial disparities associated with marijuana enforcement, this reform has been an ACLU rallying cry.
  • Eliminate cash bail across offenses and limit pretrial detention to the people most likely to do harm.
  • Reduce probation revocations. ACLU wants the state Legislature to do away with incarceration based on technical violations. ACLU-MN Community Engagement Director Jana Kooren said Wednesday that the state Department of Corrections also could reduce revocations with some internal policy changes.
  • Cap probation terms.

As it happens, the Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Nov. 6 voted 6-5 to provisionally cap most felony probations at five years. But that change still must be reviewed at a Dec. 19 public hearing and then withstand legislative scrutiny next session.

“I think that is definitely a great reform,” Kooren said. “I would say that we would have loved to see something even bigger than five years. But five years is still going to have a positive effect on a lot of people.”

In terms of imprisoning citizens, Minnesota has bucked trends. Between 2000 and 2016, ACLU reports, the national incarceration rate dropped by 7 percent; Minnesota’s rose by 51 percent.

But Minnesota has seen modest reductions in its prison population since 2016. That year, the state’s prison population reached 10,700. As of July 1, 2019, DOC reports, the number stood at roughly 9,600.

That’s “great,” Kooren said, but it’s not nearly enough. “We have not put enough reforms into place or made enough changes to ensure that we are going to keep seeing a steady, large decrease.”

Another major change espoused in the ACLU’s blueprint is greater prosecutorial oversight to address wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and transparency.

Expanding Medicaid and MinnesotaCare coverage to ensure broader mental health and substance abuse coverage is also on the group’s policy wish list.

ACLU’s Minnesota blueprint was the result of a two-year study conducted in partnership with the Urban Institute. It is part of the national ACLU’s 50 State Blueprint project.

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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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