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Legislature taking another look at parole boards
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St. Cloud prison. (File photo)
A bill that would re-establish a state parole board is moving through the Legislature. Offenders could go before the board and argue that they've reformed and should be released early. Minnesota hasn't had a parole board since 1982, when it was replaced by sentencing guidelines. Supporters say some inmates deserve a second chance through early release, which would also lower state prison costs. Critics say inmates are locked up for a reason, and should serve their time.

St. Paul, Minn. — Kim Greenwood of Little Canada says her husband, Edwin, would be a prime candidate for parole. He's serving a 13-year sentence for manufacturing methamphetamine. Greenwood, like her husband, is a meth addict. She says Edwin got clean in prison and now wants to contribute to society.

"He has performed in occupations in there in a manner that exceeded anybody's expectations, he has volunteered his time to tutor other inmates toward literacy, has had an absolutely impeccable prison record," she says.

Greenwood says her husband won't be eligible to get out of prison for another five years. She says that seems like a lifetime to her three children still living at home.

"We are a family that is torn up," she says. "And I share the thing that put him in prison in the first place. There is nothing that he is incarcerated for that, at one point or another in my addiction, I wasn't guilty of as well, but I turned my life around without having to go to prison."

It will cost the state $150,000 to keep Greenwood's husband in prison for another five years.

The sponsor of the parole board bill, Republican Judy Soderstrom of Mora, has met inmates like Edwin Greenwood through a faith-based ministry she runs in the local jails. She says a parole board, which would have the power to release offenders early, would give non-violent prisoners an incentive to reform.

"If they have a profound change in their life ... they should be offered a second chance. And my parole board bill is not going to let anyone out, of course, that's dangerous," she says.

Under Soderstrom's bill, offenders convicted of murder, sex offenses and other violent crimes would not be eligible for parole. But prosecutors say it would only take one case of someone paroled committing a violent crime, and the public would demand an end to the practice.

John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, says county prosecutors oppose a parole board.

"We want consistent sentencing standards. We want to reduce the disparity between sentences, and to make sure that individuals convicted of similar crimes receive similar sentences," according to Kingrey.

Kingrey says people sent to prison generally have lengthy criminal histories, and are not first-time offenders. And some legislators agree criminals should serve their full sentences.

"Bad choices have bad consequences," says Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud. He says Minnesota already allows inmates to get supervised release after they've served two-thirds of their sentence without getting into trouble in prison. A parole board could let them out after serving just half their time.

"I would prefer that they serve 100 percent of their sentence. And no parole. Period. We have the largest number of people on probation in the country. We have the second lowest incarceration rates in the country,"he says.

Still, Minnesota's inmate population is growing rapidly, and the state's prisons are full. The bill's Senate sponsor, DFLer Don Betzold of Fridley, says paroling some offenders would save the state money.

"If only four percent are granted an earlier release, that could save the state up to $8 million," according to Betzold.

His bill hasn't been scheduled for a hearing yet, so it may fail to meet a key committee deadline next week. But Soderstrom's bill is still alive in the House, after clearing two committees. It's now before the House Ways and Means Committee, which may object to the bill's price tag. Taxpayers would have to spend an estimated $600,000 a year for a parole board, whose five appointed members would receive a district judge's salary.

While many states have abolished their parole boards, they exist in more than 30 states.

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