Veterans Court

Judge Ross Leuning, right, explains why he believes a Veterans Court is needed in the Third Judicial District during a 2019 meeting of the Rice County Board of Commissioners. Judicial officials say treatment courts like Veterans and Drug courts are good alternatives to prison and contribute to a drop in the statewide prison population. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Local prosecutors and judges say legislative changes and discussions intended to lead to the reduction in the number of Minnesotans sentenced to jail and prison is proving effective.  

While Steele and Rice County's lead prosecutors believe the judicial system is working well, State Public Defender Bill Ward, who oversees the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, says the pace of reforms is not coming quickly enough and leaves many who are accused of crimes across the state facing lifelong consequences for relatively minor offenses, pleading guilty to crimes they never committed just to escape harsh prison sentences. 

'We have a long ways to go' 

Ward, who oversees a department with 10 offices across the state and nearly 800 lawyers who handle 150,000 cases per year, framed the issue as a problem with the criminal courts system. The approach of the criminal justice system in previous decades has created a generation who have a criminal backgrounds, but who should instead be subject to fee-free diversion programs as a way to deter criminal actions, he said, adding that the only substantial progress in criminal justice reform work has been agreement about the need to sentence fewer people to prison. 

"We over criminalize too many issues," he said.

Ward noted that more than 100,000 people in Minnesota are on probation along with the 8,000 to 10,000 in prisons statewide. According to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, approximately 0.7% of the U.S. population was either in a federal or state prison, or local jail in January 2020 — 698 per 100,000 people. According to the nonprofit, 20% of the world's incarcerated population resides in the U.S.

Ward said approximately 92% of criminal cases in Minnesota result in a plea agreement, a statistic he said, "in dozens and dozens and dozens" of cases includes innocent people who only plead guilty after having already lost their jobs, facing other adverse conditions and fearing lengthy prison sentences if they go to trial. Anyone who doesn't see that reality "is fooling themselves," he said.

"It's heartbreaking as a person," he said.

Ward suspects the high number of incarcerated people to have a cultural component, but also due to "knee jerk" societal reactions to rare instances when a particularly egregious crime is committed by someone who has been released from custody.

Ward also views the high prison population as an extension of Jim Crow laws and the war on drugs. Both have had a disproportionate impact on Black Americans. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Black males accounted for 34% of the total prison population in 2018. In 2000, Black men made up 6.1% of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To Ward, the significant decrease in the prison population during the pandemic to stop the spread of the virus without a corresponding statewide crime wave have shown that the pre-COVID-19 jail population was too high. In Minnesota, 9,381 people were in prison in January 2020. A year later, that number decreased to 7,255. 

 "We have a long way to go," he said.  

'The fines are not unreasonable' 

Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh said the county is focused on finding long-term solutions for defendants in the criminal justice system through probation services, jail programming and other work. A new jail-based workforce development program in Steele County is intended to allow inmates to successfully transition to society once they are released. Also, the Owatonna-based Crisis Resource Center offers community education programs.

Rice County Attorney John Fossum, a former public defender, said one advantage of Minnesota’s judicial system is that it does not rely on fines to raise public defender revenue as states like Missouri and Louisiana do, nor does it send people to prison for not paying off fines. The most common fine Rice County defendants face is one for $50 with a $75 surcharge and a $10 law library fee. The homeless or indigent can have their fees waived. Those who can pay more sometimes do. To Fossum, judges make sure they fairly sentence and levy fines against defendants.

“Our system is the way the system is supposed to work, and the fines are not unreasonable,” he said.

Ward disputed that, adding that bail and court fines have a disproportionate impact on the poor. He said that approach stands in contrast to the original intention of bail, which is not meant to penalize a defendant, but ensure their return to court. He believes court fines and fees create "a vicious cycle."

In many instances, he said, clients who can't afford to bail out of jail later plead guilty and are sentenced, lose their license and are unable to pay fines needed to regain driving privileges. Those defendants, often out of necessity, begin driving again and continue being arrested for driving without a license.

Those with a felony conviction face additional hurdles in rejoining the workforce. Many jobs, from nursing assistants to assisted living facility workers and hair dressers aren't open to anyone with a felony conviction. 

"It's pretty vicious," he said of the court system's impact on the accused. 

McIntosh noted that every fine in Steele County can be worked off through community service or credited for attending programming such as treatment, mental health appointments, parenting classes, and other work. Also, people who have lost their driver's licenses based on repeated violations can enter Driver's Diversion to get their license back and consolidate fines. McIntosh said the only people in Steele County held in jail before trial are those deemed to pose a direct public safety concern through assault, DWI, criminal sexual conduct and other charges. 

"Each defendant has a choice on how they address any fine," he said. "Some people have more time than money and they are able to satisfy fines with their time instead of money and can do so in a way that benefits themselves in the process."

Throughout his six years as county attorney, Fossum said there’s been “a slight decrease” in the number of cases he’s seen and the state’s prison population, attributing those drops to recent major revisions to drug statutes that reduce severity levels and sentences for certain offenses, and place a greater reliance on specialty courts focusing on addicts and veterans facing legal problems. Even with that, Fossum said defendants must obtain a GED, remain off controlled substances and have a job to complete those programs.

Though Minnesota has been cited as a state with one of the lowest incarceration rates with a relatively high number of probationary sentences, McIntosh noted there are still racial disparities in sentencing and in the general prison population.

‘We are moving in a better direction’

During the 2019-20 Minnesota Legislative session, a bill loosening restrictions and giving judges greater latitude in reducing bond, was proposed but has not been implemented. In those cases, the court would have been required to “impose the least restrictive release conditions possible,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The bill also requires a review if a defendant is in jail for more than 48 hours after the court imposes a financial condition.

District 20B Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, said he doesn’t support mandatory minimum sentences. Currently, assault against a peace officer carries a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence. Other mandatory minimum sentences are triggered by first-degree burglary when a home is occupied, some drug, DWI and firearm offenses, and convictions relating to sex offenses.

“No one should be defined by the worst mistake of their lives,” Lippert said. Instead, he called on options such as Veterans Court or treatment courts to be utilized for certain offenses.

“We deserve second chances, and our societies and communities are going to be better off,” Lippert added.

Fossum noted that Minnesota's mandatory minimum sentences are not as stringent as in the federal system, where such penalties can range from 10-30 years. However, even those standards have decreased since the 1990s due to pushback from lawyers, defendants and judges.

Third District Court Judge Joseph Bueltel, who's based in Owatonna, noted that judges still have leeway to depart from mandatory minimums but can only do so when the defendant is deemed “particularly amenable” to probation.

Speaking as a former pastor and current legislator, Lippert said conversations with judges and correctional leaders have proven fruitful in moving changes to the judicial system forward. However, he said inmates need more help in re-entering society or when they are in jail while undergoing mental health challenges. 

“We are moving in a better direction on how we are thinking about this,” he said.

‘We’re concerned about it’

Bueltel noted the pandemic is worsening delays victims and the accused already faced. Once the pandemic hit, those associated with the justice system had no platform to work off. In the months following its onset, Zoom hearings have taken a prominent role in ensuring due process and fair proceedings, but that hasn’t eliminated the case backlog.

Until May 1, jury trials can take place only if the defendant demands a speedy trial or if it's a felony. Even then, officials say social distancing guidelines will continue to limit the spread of COVID-19. All that makes Bueltel hyperaware of how difficult it is to balance the need to hear cases promptly with public safety interests.

“We’re concerned about it,” he said. “We obviously want to handle those cases that have not been heard as of yet.”

Minnesota judges like Bueltel rely on sentencing guidelines that take the defendant’s criminal history and the severity level of the offense, a statewide system he said is intended to ensure equity in sentencing. Sentences of probation and no jail time typically include defendants attend chemical dependency and/or mental health treatment, regular meetings with probation officers, and other requirements.

Even with that, Bueltel said he sees successes and failures.

“It ultimately comes down to the individual defendant,” he said. “Totally predicting how someone is going to respond in a probationary program is difficult.”

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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