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Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

December 30, 2019 GMT

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 27

Minnesota’s probation system should be reformed

Commission is wisely considering capping post-release supervision in state.

A felony drug possession conviction might lead to a sentence of three years’ probation in Hennepin County. Cross the river into Ramsey County, and the same conviction might bring five years of probationary supervision. And if you’re found guilty of a similar offense in some Greater Minnesota counties, the time in the system could be seven years or more.

Granted, different situations might call for different sentences. However, when cases are roughly equal, there shouldn’t be such wide disparities between the required time under supervision. Probation terms should be fair, and the criminal justice system should use resources to help ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into society.

Those are among the reasons to support proposed changes being considered by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC). The 11-member commission recently held a public hearing on a plan to cap felony probation at five years. If approved by the commission and not overruled by the Legislature, the guidelines would apply to all felons, except those convicted of homicide or sex offenses.

The reforms should be adopted, in part, because lengthy probations for lesser felonies take probation officer time and attention that should be focused on those most likely to reoffend. University of Minnesota experts testified that felons are most likely to reoffend in the first few years — and that very few commit new crimes after five years under supervision.

In addition, longer terms create barriers for ex-offenders who are trying to reintegrate into their communities. Even if they have followed the rules for several years, continuing under supervision can prevent them from finding housing or employment.

According to a 2019 Council of State Governments Justice Center study, on any given day in Minnesota, 3,054 people are incarcerated as a result of a supervision violation. That costs the state $125 million a year — and that doesn’t include the local county and city costs for jailing probation violators. Capping probation sentences would reduce the number of people on probation and save taxpayer dollars.

Commissioners won’t vote on the proposed changes until Jan. 9, when they submit their annual report to the Legislature. Unless state lawmakers overrule the MSGC, the new guidelines would take effect in August.

Should the Legislature intervene and further debate the issue, the plan could earn some bipartisan support. And though there has been some Republican and commissioner opposition to the change, both Republican and DFL lawmakers have suggested similar reforms in the past.

Earlier this year, Minnesota’s DFL Gov. Tim Walz joined Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson in co-writing a commentary for Time magazine calling for changes in probation guidelines. And Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell (who is also an MSGC commissioner), made a strong case for capping probation in a Star Tribune commentary.

“Yes, the (commission) could wait to see what the Legislature does or spend another year studying the issue, but at what cost?” he wrote. “The short answer: inexplicably long, wasteful, ineffective probation terms that vary depending upon your judicial district. In other words: justice by geography. It’s hard to explain the differences when similarly situated people (same offense and background) do not receive similar treatment.”

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The Free Press of Mankato, Dec. 30

Newseum closure a loss for learning about free speech

Why it matters: The closure of the Newseum is a loss for the understanding of how important free speech has been over time and must continue to be in the future.

The place is a thousand miles away, so it’s not likely many southern Minnesotans visited the museum frequently, or maybe had even heard of it.

Yet, the closing of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., this week is a blow at least symbolically to anyone who values information and the power it has — no matter your age, race, gender or political viewpoint.

Nothing made that more clear than walking into the building and seeing eight 12-foot segments of the Berlin Wall. On the one side, the side that faced Communist East Germany, the wall is drab, gray concrete; on the other side, the section facing democratic West Germany, the wall is full of colorful swirls of graffiti, artwork and messages.

It’s a stunning visual example of free speech vs. no free speech and is the largest display of unaltered portions of the wall outside of Germany.

That’s just one sampling of one exhibit. The museum is packed full, offering seven levels of exhibits with 15 galleries and 15 theaters. And there are no plans to move all of it to a new space to share with visitors why journalism is important in everyday lives.

The 9/11 Gallery displays the broadcast antennae from the top of the World Trade Center and a film featuring journalists who describe what it was like to cover the attack with gripping detail and personal reflection of trying to do their jobs as their hearts broke. And knowing the power of photojournalism, the museum exhibits every Pulitzer Prize–winning entry dating back to 1942. If you ever wanted to see both the best and worst of humanity, this exhibit does exactly that.

The Newseum didn’t just focus on recorded history, but also explored trends, such as the exploding use of social media or the use of parody and satire to deliver information. And as newspapers around the world, including The Free Press, shared their front pages with the Newseum, visitors could see the pages lined up along the sidewalk outside the building as well as inside and available electronically. Comparing the evolving news pages from around the country and the world gives a sense of how we are so connected.

The museum hasn’t been just a niche visit for journalists and journalism scholars. The plethora of history and important events captured by the media and displayed so well reminded everyone that the First Amendment is about all of us — that shaping our interpretation of the world comes from the information we get, or don’t get.

The museum struggled financially in its nearly dozen years of existence, competing to draw visitors for $25 a person when nearby Smithsonian museums are free admission. In addition, many of the funding partners have disappeared as the number of journalists, organizations and supporting foundations has shrunk.

The hope is that the closure of a museum isn’t a sign that people value freedom of speech any less; instead maybe we are so used to it that we take if for granted, like water, food, shelter. Even so, that doesn’t make the free flow of information any less important, because it will always be a factor in sustaining democracy.