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Changes to Board of Pardons could make clemency more attainable

State law recognizes that people who have committed crimes deserve second chances.

One way offenders can seek redemption is to plead for clemency before the state’s Board of Pardons, comprised of the governor, attorney general, and chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Because she sees several things wrong with that system, Rep. Esther Agbaje (DFL-Mpls) sponsors a bill that would streamline the clemency process to make it more accessible and the end goal more attainable.

HF2788 would change the requirement for a unanimous decision to approve a pardon petition to a simple majority vote, with the governor required to vote in the majority, and a nine-member Clemency Review Commission would be created to review pardon and commutation cases and present non-binding recommendations to the board.

“We need to make sure that we’re giving opportunities for people to seek redemption,” Agbaje said.

She said the three members of the board are the state’s busiest leaders, who don’t have the time to fully examine each applicant seeking clemency. Further, it only takes one vote to deny the application, which Agbaje said hinders the goal of the justice system, which is to rehabilitate people and reintegrate them into society.

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee approved the bill, as amended, Tuesday and sent it to the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Victims would be given the opportunity to appear before the commission or submit a written statement that would be kept private from the applicant or the public if disclosing it would jeopardize the victim’s safety.

“For the first time there’s going to be a focus on victim services,” said Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor. Staff would help victims prepare their presentations.

Osler said other good aspects of the commission would be expanded input from judges and prosecutors and the subpoena powers granted to the commission to corroborate statements from applicants.

The Clemency Review Commission would evaluate 10 factors for a pardon or sentence commutation, including:

  • the nature, seriousness, circumstances, and age of the applicant’s crime;
  • the successful completion or revocation of previous probation, parole, supervised release, or conditional release;
  • the number, nature, and circumstances of the applicant’s other criminal convictions;
  • the extent to which the applicant has demonstrated rehabilitation through postconviction conduct, character, and reputation; and
  • the extent to which the applicant has accepted responsibility, demonstrated remorse, and made restitution to victims.

The needed appropriation is yet to be determined, but Gov. Tim Walz has recommended $986,000 annually beginning in fiscal year 2024, including $200,000 annually for education and outreach grants to community organizations.

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