DFL Agenda on Criminal Justice Explained

DFL Agenda on Criminal Justice Explained

Image: Minnesota prison incarceration rate per 100,000 population, from 1978 to 2015. Data from BJS - Date 10 May 2016. 

DFL to continue push to change the way Minnesota handles crime and punishment 

by Deena Winter, Minnesota Reformer
February 2, 2024

Democratic lawmakers plan to continue changing Minnesota’s approach to crime and punishment this year after approving a major overhaul last year.  

They’re expected to consider legislation that would eliminate a mandatory five-year sentence for felony gun possession; lengthen the window for appealing certain criminal convictions; ban traffic stops for minor offenses; open up more police disciplinary records; and prohibit law enforcement from working with federal immigration authorities except under limited conditions.

They may also consider ending cash bail.

Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who is chair of the House public safety committee, also told nonprofit news outlet The Trace that some of Gov. Tim Walz’s gun safety proposals will likely be back on the table, such as raising the age to buy semiautomatic rifles; limiting magazine capacity; a safe storage bill; mandated reporting of lost and stolen guns; and a ban on assault weapons.

Last year, the Legislature passed a massive $880 million public safety bill with new gun restrictions. A new red flag law allows family members or police to ask judges to take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others; requires background checks for private gun sales; and increases penalties for possession of converted machine guns.

Lawmakers took a less punitive public safety approach, approving a plan to allow prisoners to get out earlier and shorten their community supervision if they participate in mental health, substance abuse and other rehabilitation programs. They also capped probation at five years for most felonies and made it easier for some people to get their criminal records expunged. 

Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers will continue that work, but added, “It’s an election cycle so you know things can get wonky.”

Banning low-level traffic stops

Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-Roseville, plans to carry a bill limiting pretextual traffic stops, which is when police stop people for minor traffic offenses — such as broken tail lights or expired registration tabs — so they can look for evidence of other crimes.

Daunte Wright and Philando Castile were both killed by police after being pulled over for minor infractions — expired tabs and a broken taillight. Police disproportionately stop people of color: Castile had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years for traffic infractions before he was shot by a cop during a traffic stop in Oumou Verbeten’s district.

The U.S. Department of Justice found the Minneapolis Police Department stops Black people at 6.5 times the rate at which it stops white people, given their share of the population.

Oumou Verbeten said the bill would limit the type of infractions cops can pull people over for, and encourage them to mail written warnings to the owner instructing them to fix the problem. 

Oumou Verbeten is trying to add to a robust public safety agenda she captained last year, including a ban on no-knock police warrants; free phone calls for state prisoners;  decriminalization of drug paraphernalia; the probation cap; and modernization of a 30-year-old law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Frazier is also working on the pretextual stops bill.

“In most of those cases, they don’t find anything,” Frazier said. “You’ve just disrupted somebody’s day, maybe gotten into a situation where it’s going to escalate — something worse is going to happen, somebody’s gonna get harmed or die. And you haven’t stopped a crime, you haven’t made the community safer. You just made somebody angry.”

Elimination of mandatory minimum for felony gun possession 

Frazier will also carry a post-conviction bill that creates a longer window for appeals if new evidence is found. 

And he plans to carry another bill that eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for felons in possession of weapons, giving judges and prosecutors more discretion.

A Marshall Project report found most people arrested for unlawfully having guns are Black, and those convicted rarely go on to commit a violent crime.

The hefty sentence makes plea deals less likely, so the cases jam up the justice system, Frazier said. Giving judges and prosecutors more discretion will free them up to focus on people actually committing crimes, he said.

“It doesn’t make our community safer,” Frazier said. “The argument’s gonna be ‘You’re soft on crime. But statistically, we know that with these penalties in place, with these laws in place, it hasn’t made communities safer.”

Lifting the veil on ‘coaching’ of cops

Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill, HF3274, last session that defines “coaching,” which is used as an alternative to discipline of police officers who have committed a relatively minor infraction. Minneapolis has faced scrutiny for using coaching in cases of significant officer malfeasance, like assaulting a shoplifting teenager. 

The public has no access to records of officers who are coached because it’s not considered discipline. The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information is suing Minneapolis over its use of coaching for more than minor incidents.

Frazer said he’d like to see the bill move this session because more transparency leads to more accountability.

The DOJ found the Minneapolis Police Department refers about 18% of police misconduct complaints to coaching rather than an investigation and follows through with coaching less than 25% of the time, sometimes taking years to do it even though it’s supposed to be completed within 45 days.

Third-party investigations of deadly force

When a police officer uses deadly force, local officials can ask the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate to see if it was justified. But they don’t have to ask for an outside investigation.

Frazier said he’ll probably carry a bill requiring that an outside agency investigate deadly force incidents.

“I think when these things happen, there should be a third-party investigation so we can get away from investigating yourself,” Frazier said.

Ban on ‘geofence warrants’

Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, is working on a bill to ban “geofence warrants,” which are search warrants for location tracking data by private companies like Google. The warrant requires the company to turn over data on people who were in the vicinity of crime scenes. 

Google’s cell phone location tracking data has been a big target; the company announced in December plans to change its data storage and retention practices to avoid the warrants.

“This is something that has become alarmingly more prevalent across the country,” Feist said. “And in many jurisdictions across the country, they’ve been found unconstitutional. Because it’s totally an invasion of privacy. They’re just issuing a warrant for people who just happen to be in a certain place. And as you can imagine, this has a discriminatory impact on communities of color.”

Minnesota police departments have used these warrants, sometimes called reverse-location search warrants, MPR reported in 2019.

Limiting solitary confinement

Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, and Feist are looking at possible legislation to further restrict the use of solitary confinement to punish state prisoners, beyond new regulations passed in 2019

Feist said there’s definitely interest among lawmakers to do something about the practice, which experts say worsens inmates’ condition, especially those with mental illnesses.

Finke said legislation could either take a broad look at whether the state should continue to segregate prisoners at all, or take a more “scalpel approach” to ensure it’s done as humanely as possible.

”We know these have just incredibly detrimental outcomes,” Finke said. “In my opinion we shouldn’t be using it at all.”

Opening prisons up to more visitors

Finke said she will introduce a bill to increase and improve prison visitation. Some prisoners never get a single visitor, which she said leads to worse outcomes when they’re released.

That’s not always because nobody wants to visit them: Loved ones are too far away, and visiting hours are limited. Finke wants to expand visitation hours and loosen visitor qualifications and set up a program that would bring in volunteers, social workers or family members to visit the most isolated prisoners.

“It’s very restrictive,” Finke said of the system. “There are ways to close the gaps.”

Making Minnesota a sanctuary state

Feist and Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, will carry a bill to make Minnesota a sanctuary state.

The North Star Act would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities to deport people. Agencies wouldn’t be able to collaborate with or share data with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce immigration laws, but could still do so to investigate criminal activity.

ICE regularly subpoenas local agencies for vast amounts of information, said Feist, an immigration attorney.

“We don’t want to waste our precious resources on enforcing a broken federal immigration system,” Feist said.

Feist said the bill has 35 authors, and the governor has said in the past he supports it.

Minnesota Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican for questions: info@minnesotareformer.com. Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.

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