A joint hearing by several legislative committees Thursday evaluated issues regarding re-entry programs for ex-convicts.
The Judiciary B and Corrections committees from both chambers heard from a pair of Minnesota Department of Corrections officials with a successful work release program and from a pair of administrators at Gulf Coast Coast Community College.
The goal of these reforms is to reduce the state’s incarcerated population while at the same time increasing a workforce participation rate that is the nation’s worst at 56 percent.
The workforce participation rate is a key indicator since it measures those of working age actively looking for work in addition to those already employed (with those institutionalized in prisons, nursing homes or mental hospitals omitted).
Kelley Heifort and Lisa Wojcik from the Minnesota Department of Corrections testified to the joint committee about their state's work release program.
Minnesota has a unique sentencing regime in that a convict is incarcerated for two thirds of their sentence and released to community supervision in the final third. The work release program allows inmates who've served at least 50 percent of their sentence to relocate to a community-based housing unit and work at least 32 hours per week.
These housing units are often run by non-profit partners of the state's corrections department and won't be housing dangerous inmates who might re-offend.
“Our goal would be to have them be in incarceration and participate in programming that might reduce that risk,” Heifort said. “That's our goal is to get the low-risk people out and on work release and working and living their lives and becoming taxpayers.”
Heifort said the program has about 200 or so participants, a large proportion of the state's 1,000 or so state prison population.
Cedric Bradley and Ladd Taylor from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College told the committee about the federal Pell grant pilot program for the incarcerated that the school, along with Holmes Community College, participates.
Bradley, who is the vice president of the Harrison County campus, said that the incarcerated were passing their GED and high school equivalency at such a high rate that they wanted to give them the opportunity to receive credit that could be applied to MGCCC or any other community college statewide upon release.
The federal program that MGCCC was selected to participate in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Education provides Pell grant funds to pay tuition, which covers the cost of the courses taken by prisoners while incarcerated. There are 130 higher education institutions participating in the program that is known as the Second Chance Pell Grant, which the Department of Education recommends for those in the last five years of their sentence.
“We particularly wanted to provide career technical education to those individuals because we knew that would be the best opportunity for those individuals once they were released to earn a livable wage," Bradley told the committee.
Three criminal justice reform bills passed in last year's session.
Senate Bill 2795 changed the way the state does parole with non-violent offenders eligible after serving 25 percent of their sentence. Violent offenders would be eligible after serving at least 50 percent of their sentence. SB 2795 was sponsored by state Sen. Juan Barnett, D- Heidelberg, and similar legislation was vetoed last year by Reeves.
Two more that were signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves were authored by state Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth. HB 551 will allow ex-convicts to obtain driver’s licenses, while HB 196 will require the state’s penitentiaries to provide a basic standard of healthcare for pregnant women who are incarcerated.