Proposal could help Minnesota inmates shave time off prison terms

Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell makes the case to Alexandria area leaders.

Paul Schnell

Each month in Minnesota, about 600 inmates walk out of prison and back into their communities.

Sometimes reconnecting with regular society goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Paul Schnell, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, would like to see the state make changes that he says would make the re-entry process more successful.

For those exiting prisons, “It’s in our best interest that they come out as good and positive as possible,” Schnell told Alexandria area business and civic leaders during a Monday Zoom video meeting.

Schnell advocated for the Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act, stalled in the Minnesota Senate, that would trim prison sentences for prisoners who work on improving their chances of success once they leave prison. For example, a prisoner sentenced to 100 months who would normally be eligible for release at 67 months and then 32 months of probation, could serve 50 months in prison and then serve 22 months of probation.


Providing this option for prisoners locked up for lower-level crimes will give inmates purpose behind bars and also reduce prisoner violence and the chance of attacks on prison staff, he said.

“Incentives work,” he said.

He said certain offenses, such as sex crimes or murder, would not be allowed to earn early release.

He said Minnesota is just one of a handful of states that does not have an earned release policy.

If the legislation becomes law, state workers would evaluate prisoners in more detail than they do now and come up with a plan to work on during their prison sentence.

Currently, prison staff assesses a new inmate’s medical, dental and mental health needs, their substance abuse and their level of education.

Under the proposed system, staff would also look at childhood trauma, what sort of support system they would return to in their community, and their strengths.

Those who work on themselves during their time behind bars, such as taking advantage of substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment or learning a skill, could get out earlier. And, if they carry through with their efforts once they return home, they could also clip time off their probation period.


That would save the state money, Schnell said — up to $10 million a year.

The savings would be divided into four pots: for crime victims, crime prevention, community-based correctional programs and the state’s general fund.

He said he has encountered objections from those who don't believe in allowing early release, that those who do the crime should serve the time.

“I understand that" he said. "We have a system that puts in place clearer sentencing guidelines. It can also become a waste of our resources. Minnesota deserves the best product when people come home.”

The proposal could also help employers, who are facing a labor shortage, by providing willing workers who have gained sheet rocking, welding, or other skills while incarcerated, Schnell said.

And having an offer of employment provides a more stable life for an inmate, he said, making him or her less likely to commit another crime.

He urged employers who are interested in working with inmates to contact The Redemption Project, based in Bloomington, Minn., which lines up employers to provide inmates with mentoring opportunities while incarcerated and a good job upon release.

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