Second chance legislation for ex-offenders garners bipartisan support

Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed April 2018 Second Chance Month, in recognition of individuals who have served time and re-entered society.

According to the proclamation, there are more than 48,000 documented social stigmas and legal restrictions that prohibit ex-prisoners from leading full and productive lives upon re-entry. Those barriers “lead to recidivism, which increases victimization and decreases public safety.”

Ryan Pfeiffer, president of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition (MSCC), said the proclamation was a step in the right direction and shows that “a growing bipartisan group of politicians is recognizing the dire need to make it easier for people involved in the criminal justice system to find jobs and housing and better contribute to society.”

The MSCC choir at the annual Day on the Hill event. Keith Schubert/MSR News
MSCC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for ex-offenders through educational workshops and legislation advocacy. The group’s biggest event of the year is its Day on the Hill where over 60 organizations gather at the Capitol to meet with local legislatures and lobby for their legislative priorities.

This year, MSCC’s priorities included voting restoration, reducing the length of felony probation periods, and reducing the impact of fines and fees. The focus of MSCC is the collateral effects of imprisonment and what happens once someone is in the re-entry process.

In Minnesota, there are around 57,000 felons who have been released from incarceration but must complete their supervised release before they are allowed to vote. MSCC contends that people living, working, and paying taxes in our communities should be allowed to vote upon re-entry.

Rob Stewart, a MSCC board member, couldn’t vote for nine years after being released from prison; he said it was frustrating not being able to vote in local elections that impacted his everyday life.

“So much of what the criminal justice system is about is exclusion,” Stewart said. He said allowing ex-prisoners to vote sends a message of inclusion because “people who vote have at least some type of investment in their community, and I think we should encourage that.”

Elizer Darris, community activist and motivational speaker (Travis Lee/MSR News)
Community activist Elizer Darris, who is currently completing his supervised release, said the power of the ballot cannot be denied. His advice to other people who can’t vote is to get involved in organizing. “As one individual, I can’t vote,” he said. “But what I can do is I can drive thousands of people to the ballots.”

In the latest legislative session, DFL state Rep. Raymond Dehn’s bill to more quickly restore voting rights to felons failed by an eight to seven vote in the House Public Safety and Security Policy Committee, despite having bipartisan support.

Failure to pass this bill showed Darris that legislatures are still putting politics over people. “It’s really sad,” he said. “I thought we won them over and that was foolish.”

However, Darris noted that he does not think this is a partisan issue because even when there was Democratic leadership, nothing was getting done.

Minnesota has some of the longest probation periods in the country that according to MSCC, directly impedes the abilities of ex-prisoners to re-enter society in the most effective way possible.

A member of the MN Second Chance Coalition shows off his sign

MSCC wants to put a five-year cap on felony probation periods in criminal cases that don’t involve sexual conduct, and an eight-year cap on cases where the sentencing guidelines recommend prison, but the court imposes probation.

Pfeiffer said even though on the surface, probation may seem like a good way of keeping people out of jail, it “leads to a revolving door of incarceration,” and could “have the adverse consequence of entrapping a defendant in the revolving door of imprisonment.”

In Minnesota, some probation periods can last up to 40 years, said Stewart. Longer probation periods means extended disenfranchisement for ex-prisoners. “That’s a long time to be under the surveillance of the system,” he said.

If someone is on probation for decades, eventually they are going to screw up, and even if it is not something severe, there can still be serious consequences like going back to jail, Stewart explained.

Darris reasoned that screwing up is a part of life, but said he thinks it is secondary to the disenfranchisement aspect. He explained that for however long someone is on probation, they lose access to rights and privileges that people take advantage of every day, like hunting or voting.

In regards to fines and fees, things like traffic violations and petty misdemeanors “strip assets from low-income communities, especially communities of color” according to MSCC. In addition to stripping assets, it can also create a debt trap for people that can take years to escape. Stewart referred to them as “poverty penalty.”

One of MSCC’s top priorities is to stop driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets and other violations that don’t impact public safety. There is a bill moving through the legislature that would do just that.

The chief author of the bill, Republican State Rep. Nick Zerwas, did not comment on the importance of this bill by press time. But Zerwas’ and Dehn’s bills have garnered Democratic and Republican support for MSCC legislative priorities.

Pfeiffer said he thinks the bipartisan support of these bills and MSCC’s legislative priorities is a sign of “increasing awareness of the disproportionate impact [these policies have] on lower-income individuals.”

Keith Schubert welcomes reader response to kschubert@spokesman-recorder.com.