County Attorney Freeman, other prosecutors, support bill to shorten sentences for some elderly inmates

Tuesday,

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, along with the Ramsey County Attorney and the Attorney General, touted a new bill during a Tuesday news conference that would allow prosecutors to shorten long prison sentences for elderly inmates who have worked to rehabilitate themselves.

Freeman, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison joined with the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition in a virtual news conference to support a bill that is similar to ones already the law in California and Washington state.

“I have long felt that we should have few, if any, inmates over 65 or 70,” Freeman said. “Sentences that may be appropriate when they were imposed are not appropriate today.”

Freeman also said it would save state taxpayers money because senior citizen inmates “don’t need big walls and guards. It’s kind of inhumane.”

The bill, known as the prosecutor-initiated re-sentencing bill, was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives by Kelly Moeller, a Shoreview DFLer. She said the bill is an incentive for someone serving a long prison term to seek out programs to improve themselves. It also provides a mechanism for the inmate’s victim or family of the victim to give their opinion on an early release.

Choi said not every inmate will be eligible. The inmate must apply to the county attorney whose office obtained the conviction and the long sentence. Then, that county attorney will investigate what the has done in prison and whether he has redeemed himself, been a model prisoner and shown clear evidence of rehabilitation. Ultimately, a judge decides if the prisoner can be released.

“As prosecutors we are ministers of justice and justice can’t end once we get a conviction and a sentence,” Choi said.

Hillary Blout, executive director of For the People, an organization she founded in California in order, she said, to support “prosecutors who are trying to strike the balance between public safety and justice.” She is a former prosecutor and conceived the prosecutor initiated re-sentencing bill in 2018 and it has been law since 2019.

Out of 58 district attorneys in California, only a dozen have opted into the program. Every case has either been a joint agreement with the defense attorney or the prosecutor has not contested the defense attorney’s request to release her client.

“I am here to allay any fears it will open the floodgates,” Blout said. “That has not been the case in California. It has been methodical, careful consideration of these cases.”

Ellison pointed to the release last week of Joe Ligon, of Pennsylvania. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1953 when he was 15 years old. While he did not commit the fatal stabbings, he was with the group who did. He was 83 years old when he was released. It is a perfect example of why the bill should be passed by the legislature, Ellison said.

“I know there are some people who will say, ‘isn’t everybody going to ask?’, Ellison said referring to prisoners. “Maybe, but they (prosecutors) don’t have to give it. It’s another tool in the toolbox and like all tools, we use it when it is appropriate. After three, four decades of harsher and harsher sentences, maybe it's time for the ministers of justice to say it is time,” for something different.