Crime, Law and Justice

First lady Gwen Walz, groups push for changes in Minnesota criminal justice system

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi speaks at a press conference.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi speaks in support of restoring voting rights for felons at a news conference at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday. The news conference was called by the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition to promote changes in Minnesota's criminal justice system to make it easier for people to turn their lives around.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo

Updated: 7:44 p.m.

Groups calling for changes in Minnesota's criminal justice system to make it easier for people to turn their lives around said Wednesday that they're optimistic that some of the proposals they're promoting may become law this year.

The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition held its annual rally at the Capitol. At a news conference beforehand, leaders said they have grounds for hoping that a proposal to stop suspending drivers' licenses for unpaid traffic tickets will finally get enacted.

First lady Gwen Walz took part in the rally in support of sentencing revisions, voting rights restoration and other criminal justice changes that Minnesota grants too few pardons. A three-member board that includes the governor meets twice a year to consider pardons, which require a unanimous vote. And a pardon comes after somebody has completed a sentence and effectively wipes a conviction off a record.

“If you need a pardon, apply. Those numbers have been going down. I want them up, flood the zone,” Walz told the crowd at the Capitol, “because what that does is fully restores people to our community. And we need each and every person in this state in our community. Rights restored, active, engaged.”

The bill has significant support in both the GOP-controlled Senate and among Republicans in the Democratic-controlled House, said Anna Odegaard of the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition. She listed its main sponsor, Burnsville Republican Dan Hall, and two key cosponsors: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of Nisswa, and GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, of Alexandria, a retired sheriff.

More than 81,000 licenses are under suspension in Minnesota solely because of unpaid traffic tickets, and a suspension “quickly leads to financial crisis for any families without significant savings,” Odegaard said. “In fact we know that about 60% of low-income folks who lose their license, lose their job.”

The proposal was included in a massive catch-all bill that passed when Republicans controlled both chambers in 2018 but was vetoed by democratic then-Gov. Mark Dayton for other reasons.

Another bill, which would give judges more discretion to order alternatives to incarceration for primary caregivers for children, also has bipartisan Senate support, said Gina Evans of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.

Democratic Rep. Heather Edelson, of Edina, said she learned from her work at the state women's prison in Shakopee last summer that many mothers are there for technical violations or nonviolent crimes that resulted in them being separated from their children.

“What we don't talk about when we say we're being tough on crime is what happens to kids in the meantime,” she said.

Other coalition proposals, such as automatically restoring the voting rights of felons on probation, face longer odds. But Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said restoring voting rights is critical to connecting these people to their communities.

“We can do significant reforms in the criminal justice arena, have public safety, respect the rights of victims and save tax money,” said the coalition's president, Pete Sutter.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this story.