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House OKs bill offering conditional release to inmates who give birth

Imagine the heartbreak a new mother would feel if her newborn baby were taken away from her in as little as 36 hours after giving birth.

That is what happens currently when female prison inmates give birth while serving time in Minnesota, says Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville).

She says taking a newborn away from an incarcerated mother brings unnecessary trauma to both and disrupts critical bonding time.

“Instead of bringing that baby home with them, and spending those critical first days, weeks and months with their baby, they hand their baby off to somebody else,” Becker-Finn said. “This practice isn’t OK. It’s cruel to both the mom and the baby.”

She and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake) sponsor HF1403/SF1315*, which passed the House 128-5 Monday. Passed 65-0 by the Senate on April 13, it now goes to Gov. Tim Walz.

Dubbed the “Healthy Start Act,” the bill has 35 House sponsors – all women.

It would authorize the Department of Corrections to conditionally release, for up to one year, an inmate who is postpartum and gave birth within eight months of the date of commitment.

For an inmate who is pregnant, the bill would allow for a conditional release for the duration of the pregnancy and up to one year postpartum.

If an inmate has more time to serve after her conditional release, she would return to prison unless the Corrections Department decides another option.

“They are still going to serve their time, it’s just going to be in a different way to make sure they are not separated from that newborn baby,” Becker-Finn said.

A conditional release would need to include “community-based programming for the purpose of participation in prenatal or postnatal care programming and to promote mother-child bonding.”

The Corrections Department could require the released inmate to enroll in parenting skills programming, work at paid employment, seek employment, or participate in vocational training, an educational program, or chemical dependency or mental health treatment services.

Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake) cited research showing that mother-baby bonding early in the baby’s life is critical for several important areas of brain development.

“When we keep mothers and babies together, a powerful, amazing thing happens to these children,” she said. “It literally sets in motion the rest of their lives.”

According to statistics from the Corrections Department, of the 278 pregnant women sentenced to serve time in Minnesota between 2013 and 2020, 77% were in prison for technical violations of supervision, and 84% had non-violent offenses. A majority, 54%, were released within six months of giving birth.

The language in the bill is also included in the House version of the omnibus judiciary and public safety policy and finance bill, HF1030/SF970*, which is currently in conference committee.

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