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Minnesota Citizens Will Soon Decide Which Inmates Get Parole

Starting in July, a new citizen panel will review requests from inmates serving mandatory minimum life sentences, mostly for first-degree murder. Previously, the review process has been done by the corrections commissioner.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections will soon seek citizen help with deciding who gets out of prison and who remains locked up.

Because of a 2023 change by the Legislature, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell will no longer make release decisions on his own. Starting in July, a new citizen panel will decide which inmates serving life sentences are released and which stay in prison.

"This has been one of the most incredible experiences of this job, the parole responsibilities," Schnell said. "It's really brutally difficult, and yet I've met some of the most incredible people."

The idea behind the change is to have a broader group of Minnesotans decide who is released rather than only the commissioner making the call. Schnell said the new approach will be more open and balanced, including appointees from both political parties. A simple majority of the panel will determine what happens with a release request.

Until 1982, the state Board of Corrections decided who was paroled. That board was abolished and the authority was vested in the commissioner.

When he was appointed by Walz five years ago, Schnell said he wasn't initially aware that the commissioner made these decisions on his own.

"One of the things that the governor and I talked about was this is an incredible responsibility and perhaps this is one of those places where there should be a higher level of shared governance," Schnell said.

Walz said Wednesday he supported the change as a way to bring in experts and depoliticize the process. He will appoint the members, but the legislative caucuses will make recommendations.

The board will handle requests from inmates serving mandatory minimum life sentences, most of them convicted of first-degree murder. About 500 inmates are in that category and most will be paroled at some point, Schnell said. Those inmates must serve 30 years before seeking release. The board will also consider rapists sentenced to mandatory minimums of 15 years.

Under the current system, the number of inmates granted release has varied and climbed in recent years as more inmates became eligible.

Since 2019, Schnell has held 318 parole hearings and released 46 inmates.

Before him, Commissioner Tom Roy held 272 hearings and released 51 inmates. Roy served under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton from 2011 to 2018.

Commissioner Joan Fabian served in the role under GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty from 2003 to 2010. Fabian held 196 hearings and released 17 inmates.

Commissioner Sheryl Ramstad served from 1999 to 2002 under Gov. Jesse Ventura. She conducted 140 hearings and released 12 inmates. No commissioner before her paroled more than nine inmates.

Ramstad is among the more than two dozen Minnesotans who have applied. Schnell wants more applicants. "We believe there are people out there who would certainly qualify," he said.

There's no deadline to apply, but Schnell encouraged anyone interested to apply soon, with training starting in mid-April.

Two of the positions require a background in neurology, psychology or something similar with knowledge of adolescent brain development. The other four positions require a background or experience or a degree in the law, criminal justice, sociology, corrections or a related social science. More information, including the names of applicants, can be found on the state's website.

The panel will review information from a variety of sources including prison staff, prosecutors, the community and surviving family members of the victim.

Schnell will chair the panel and be joined by four public members. In cases where the inmate was a juvenile when the crime was committed and tried as an adult, an additional two members will join the panel.

"The decisions are not easy to make because there may be people that are opposed. Some of these decisions come up against general public sensibilities," Schnell said.

Board members will receive a $250 daily allowance. They must commit to two to four full days of hearings per month and are expected to serve four-year terms. They will also be required to do significant homework, reviewing documentation, including information about crimes, community impact, victim sentiment and the inmate's life in prison.

Appointees must meet with victims' families and visit at least one state correctional facility a year.

"I've met so many people who lost loved ones to the actions of another person, and I've been struck by their unimaginable pain and their incredible resilience," Schnell said. "The role has also provided me the opportunity witness to incredible change and transformation by some of the people who've engaged in conduct for which there is no explanation or ability to remedy."

©2024 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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