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Mn. Governor Dayton steps into the sunlight of rehabilitation with his selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Mn. Gov. Dayton has selected Mr.Tom Roy, a veteran probation and parole officer to head the Mn. Dept. of Corrections. Wow! Finally, someone to lead state corrections who sees beyond retribution and confinement!

Let me share  Minnesota’s flirtation with prisoner rehabilitation. It’s a short chapter in “prison reform.”

In 1970 I sat in the auditorium at Red Wing State Training School for Boys in Red Wing, Mn., listening to Harry Vorath speak glowingly of the salient aspects of positive peer culture (“ppc”) introduced at the instituion. For the next 8-9 months I took part in the group therapy program. Obviously, it didn”t work for me as I was sitting in a prison cell a couple of years later, having been convicted of a commercial burglary.

Did it not work because there was no follow-up once I hit the streets? Once I was released from Red Wing I was on my own, save for periodic contact with a parole officer. However, when I entered St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn., it was a different story.

At St.Cloud I again took part in a ppc program. This time it was Project Newgate, a college-level program with its initial phase at St.Cloud and subsequent transition to the University of Minnesota Mpls. campus. After nine months in the prison program I was released to campus where I eventually completed my B.A. in political science and then a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law.

While in undergraduate school I participated in the Legal Advocacy Project representing inmates before disciplinary (“due process”) hearings in Stillwater Prison and St.Cloud Reformatory. I also filled the “ex-offender” slot for the Ramsey County (St.Paul, Mn.) Corrections Advisory Board.

It was during this period of time that I became aware of a disturbing trend: the inevitable rollback of funding for community corrections, which directly impacted such programs as Project Newgate that was essential to my surviving after being released from prison and going on to become an attorney.

I watched with increasing frustration as effective community programs appeared before the advisory board pleading for the ever shrinking dollar. From my perspective, the process was complete when the Minnesota legislature encted the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines that restricted the sentencing judge’s discretion and required application of a presumptive sentence based on severity level of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history score.

Many states, including the federal government, followed suit with their version of “equitable” sentencing policies. With determinate sentences,  there is little an inmate can do to secure an early release from prison. Sure, there has been a tweeking of the system to alleviate overcrowding in our prisons.

Maybe Gov. Dayton, through his commissioner- designate, can undue some of  the damage to our communities heaped upon us by having embraced this myopic and draconian view of “corrections.” If not, then we-as a nation- can continue to enjoy our well-deserved status as the country to lock up more people than any country in the world.

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