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Bill aims to help state limit coronavirus danger to Minnesota's inmates

Rep. Carlos Mariani, chair of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division, makes opening comments as the division begins an April 6 remote hearing. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Two characteristics of prison and jail inmates make them especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus: many have underlying health conditions and they live in close quarters with one another.

Taking immediate steps to keep COVID-19 from decimating this population is one impetus for the omnibus intermediate emergency COVID-19 response bill heard on an informational basis Monday by the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division.

Another impetus of the bill is to protect law enforcement officers, correctional officers and other workers who interact with this population as safe as possible.

If COVID-19 spreads through the state’s prisons and jails that puts the general public at greater risk because staff going in and out of these facilities on a daily basis can carry the virus back to their families and their communities, said Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), sponsor of the proposal yet to receive a bill number because it hasn’t been officially introduced.

“This bill is about the high-stakes balancing that we’ve got to do … to keep a place of close confinement under a whole lot of stress and tension as safe as possible,” said Mariani.

House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division 4/6/20

Mariani said his intention in hearing the proposal was to inform division members and the general public about language that ultimately may be introduced and moved during a scheduled April 14 House floor session.

Division members took no action on the bill or six proposed amendments during Monday’s remote hearing.  

A key provision would give the corrections commissioner authority to grant early conditional release to an inmate who has 180 days or less to serve provided that the Corrections Department also provides “notice to victims who requested notice of the inmate's release.”

Only inmates deemed a “a low risk to reoffend and do not present a foreseeable risk to public safety” would be eligible.

"It's not an automatic release," said Corrections Ombudsperson Mark Haase. He said the commissioner would decide who can be released on a case-by-case basis, using advice from Corrections Department staff with expertise in public safety risk assessment.

“Public safety has to be the No. 1 consideration,” said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.

Schnell noted that corrections’ staff is working overtime to ensure the department takes steps to avoid the disastrous situation that occurred in Italy when COVID-19 spread rapidly through that country’s prison population.

Some of those steps are to support local sheriffs who have decided to only bring people arrested to detention facilities if they are arrested for violent offenses, or if other circumstances exist that would affect the health or safety of the arrestee or the broader community.


Other provisions

To keep first responders, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, and domestic abuse and victim advocates, as safe as possible while performing their duties, the bill specifies that health care providers who test first responders for COVID-19 must return test results to them as soon as possible.

The bill would also:

  • require the corrections commissioner and sheriffs to post daily inmate population numbers for prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers on publicly accessible websites administered by the agencies;
  • require the commissioner of corrections to report to the Legislature within 180 days of the expiration of the peacetime COVID-19 emergency any emergency powers that were exercised, when the powers were exercised, and an explanation for why the powers were necessary;
  • permit coroners and medical examiners to access the criminal justice data communications network to identify a dead person; and
  • direct the commissioner of corrections to grant inmates free external phone calls and video conferences if visitors are prohibited because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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