New ‘good time’ law is not a quick fix for protested prison conditions, DOC commissioner, bill author say

DOC Commissioner speaks on activists’ calls for change at Stillwater prison

DOC Commissioner speaks on activists' calls for change at Stillwater prison

Corrections reform activists protesting conditions at the Stillwater prison have said the primary solution is to address a shortage of corrections officers, and they’ve claimed that can be done “immediately,” in part, through a new state law.

Under the Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act, prisoners convicted of most crimes can get out after serving half of their sentence — as opposed to two-thirds previously — if they behave and participate in rehabilitative programs.

The law went into effect Aug. 1 but likely won’t be implemented until 2025, according to Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

“So is it a long-term solution? Yes,” Schnell said, responding to activists’ claims on Monday.

“We have a team that is actively engaged in developing and presenting a range of options to address some of the more immediate challenges that we face,” he continued, adding that the Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act “is not going to be in that mix at this time.”

David Boehnke with the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, who has been a primary speaker at multiple news conferences in the last week, called the shortage of corrections officers “a staffing crisis in every prison in Minnesota.”

“What they’re not telling you though is that the Department of Corrections and the commissioner, Paul Schnell, has the authority to release more low-risk people today that are in this prison today,” he said at a press conference in front of the Stillwater prison on Sept. 4.

According to DOC records updated on Monday, 1,197 adult offenders are “currently on-site” at the Stillwater facility.

Boehnke was citing the Home for Good campaign. Its website claims 1,300 prisoners (out of roughly 8,500 statewide) “who may already have earned their good time,” based on time served, “will continue to be confined.”

“So the key word there is ‘may,’ right?” Schnell responded. “But, you know, to say that they’ve made this assessment, I don’t know how they could. Because I don’t know what the basis for that would be.”

Asked if the DOC has its own assessment of the number of offenders who would be eligible for earned release, Schnell said, “This is what our team is working on.”

Minnesota Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, was the primary author of the Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act.

“I really can’t say I haven’t seen those particular numbers,” she said, asked for her take on Home for Good’s assertion. “Certainly, there are some people who I think would qualify.”

The law requires early release to be earned by current and future offenders, each under an individualized rehabilitation plan.

Asked how long it will take to implement the new earned release process, Schnell said, “We testified at the very beginning, through the legislative process, that that was 18 to 24 months,” meaning, it’ll likely be 2025 before anyone is released under the new law.

“What this Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act is focused on is exactly that, making sure that we address the needs of people who are incarcerated and reduce their risks,” Schnell continued.

“Until, and unless, we can stand behind the fact that programs and services are available to them, and they’ve done the things that they need to do, that is simply not a good solution.”

“I think the thing to keep in mind is that this is a fundamental overhaul in the way that we run our correction system,” Rep. Becker-Finn said. “So there’s necessarily going to be some lead up and planning time around it.”

Becker-Finn said she’s been in continuous conversations with the DOC, including in the past week, regarding ways to speed up the process, such as implementing earned release in phases.

“If we can do it sooner than that, we will,” Schnell said. “But I didn’t — I never wanted to be in a position where I was going to promise something we couldn’t deliver.”

People convicted of certain violent crimes such as homicide and criminal sexual conduct are not eligible for earned release, according to the law.