Top Minnesota prosecutors tout bill allowing them to shorten long prison sentences for elderly inmates

Tuesday, some of Minnesota’s top prosecutors came together to support a bill that would allow prosecutors to shorten long prison sentences for elderly inmates who’ve worked to rehabilitate themselves.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi joined the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition in a virtual news conference to support the bill, which they said is similar to laws in California and Washington state.

"I have long felt that we should have few, if any, inmates over 65 or 70," Freeman said. "Sentences that may be appropriate when they were imposed are not appropriate today."

The bill was introduced by Minnesota Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who wrote the bill to incentivize inmates seeking out programs to improve themselves. The bill also allows the inmate’s victim or the family of the victim to give their opinion on an early release.

Freeman said it would save Minnesota taxpayers money because senior citizen inmates "don’t need big walls and guards. It’s kind of inhumane."

Choi added that not every inmate is eligible under the bill. Inmates must apply to the county attorney whose office obtained the conviction. That attorney will then investigate what the inmate has done in prison and whether there’s evidence of rehabilitation. A judge would ultimately decide if an inmate could be released early.

"As prosecutors, we are ministers of justice and justice can’t end once we get a conviction and a sentence," Choi said.

"I am here to allay any fears it will open the floodgates," Hillary Blout, executive director of For the People, added. "That has not been the case in California. It has been methodical, careful consideration of these cases."

Ellison pointed to the release last week of Joe Ligon, of Pennsylvania. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1953 when he was 15 years old. While he didn’t commit the fatal stabbings, he was with the group who did. He was 83 when he was released. Ellison called it a perfect example of why the bill should be passed by the legislature.

"I know there are some people who will say, ‘Isn’t everybody going to ask?’" Ellison said referring to prisoners. "Maybe, but they (prosecutors) don’t have to give it. It’s another tool in the toolbox and like all tools, we use it when it is appropriate. After three, four decades of harsher and harsher sentences, maybe it’s time for the ministers of justice to say it is time (for something different)."