DOC chief: Minn. Senate bill would lead to 'increased risks to safety'

The Senate’s bill provides $9.5 million over two years to hire more corrections officers and pay for prison security upgrades

Stephen Montemayor
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell warned this week that the Senate's public safety bill falls well short of targets needed to improve officer and inmate security, something prison officials deemed a top priority amid a wave of assaults that included two officer deaths last year.

Lawmakers and corrections officials have called for more funding to improve staffing and to shore up safety for both state prison guards and inmates.

The Senate's bill, passed 44-23 late Wednesday, provides $9.5 million over two years to hire more corrections officers and pay for prison security upgrades. But in a letter to Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate's judiciary and public safety committee, Schnell said the spending package would lead to dozens of officer cuts and an inability to provide prisoner health care because it does not cover other operational costs.

"If this budget becomes a reality, the DOC is required to cut essential programming within our facilities to make up for this healthcare funding shortfall — including behavioral health and treatment programming," Schnell wrote. "With these cuts from the Senate proposal will come increased risks to safety."

Gov. Tim Walz' budget proposal includes money to add 120 new officers and 47 support staff, levels that align with the corrections department's hiring projections. Schnell said that under the Senate's budget the department would see a net loss of 78 correctional positions in 2020, and another drop of 119 in 2021. By 2023, Schnell said, the budget shortfall would equal the total cost of running the state prison in Red Wing, Minn.

Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington also wrote Limmer recently to point out a lack of funding for improving investigations involving vulnerable adults and sex assault cases. Harrington added that the state's decade-old automated fingerprint information system "remains unsupported without funding for a replacement."

Before Wednesday's vote, Limmer said his bill "may not be as big as what others may want or think this area needs." But he touted other high-profile provisions in the bill, including security upgrades to protect nonprofit faith-based groups considered vulnerable to attack from violent extremists.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Wednesday that he was "embarrassed on behalf of" Limmer because he knew his colleague was "chafing at the budget target for this bill" set by Senate GOP leaders.

"This blueprint that we have in front of us cannot simply be written off as a negotiating position; that's too superficial," Latz said. "This is the majority's preferred budget, their priorities, their moral statement on how they ought to be raising money and spending money in the state of Minnesota."

The DFL-led House public safety spending bill is scheduled for a vote on Monday. It includes DFL gun control priorities and increased spending for prisons. That would put both guns and prison funding squarely in end-of-session budget negotiations.

"I would like to think that we're going to have a robust discussion over the next few weeks," Limmer said.


©2019 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)


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