Looking at felonies from the eyes of the incarcerated

There were about 63,000 Minnesotans in the criminal justice system in 2016, according to data presented by Christopher Uggen, University of Minnesota sociology professor, at a criminal justice reform forum in Shoreview this month.

A felony conviction can affect the rest of your life.

After serving their time, many people with felony convictions on their record have a hard time reestablishing their lives — driving, finding a job and a place to stay, and paying off court fees. Several ex-offenders discussed the difficulties of leaving their felony drug-related records behind at a criminal justice reform forum held at the Ramsey County Library – Shoreview this month.

“When you are trying to reestablish a life out here, you have all these things chipping away at you,” said Marlin Meszaro, reentry coordinator at FreedomWorks, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders reenter life after prison. Meszaro was formerly incarcerated himself; he said he doesn’t look like someone who has 13 felonies on his record.

Even now, he is still working to get his driver’s license back. He became involved in drugs at a young age and has been through long-term recovery. He now fights to give a voice to the formerly addicted. “We could probably be trusted to cast a ballot,” he explained. Meszaro is a board member on the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, which advocates to the Legislature for fee reduction, shorter felony probation periods and voting restoration for those who have finished serving their time.

“There are so many things working against you when you are involved in the criminal justice system,” added Gina Evans, a past president of the coalition and community outreach director at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.

Evans, of Mounds View, said she became involved in drugs at age 15 and landed in prison at age 21. She said she was traumatized by incarceration. When she later went to the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge recovery program, she was finally able to break her addiction. “I didn’t need restoration; I needed healing,” she remembered. “I just wish someone would have looked at me (at age 21) and realized I was at a place where I could be taught a new normal.”

“You can’t prison away an addiction,” Meszaro noted, who also attended Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge.

Tonja Honsey, founder of We Rise Leadership Collective, which advocates for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, said her 25-year spiral in and out of jail and prison began at age 12 when she was a foster child. She said children shouldn’t have sell drugs to survive because they have no safe family with food.

“I see how we can build better communities rather than building better prisons,” Honsey said. Many women that end up in prison have been abused and turned to drugs to cope. When women and their children are separated, it adds to the cycle of problems. Many women see going back to their abuser or selling drugs as their only option to get their children back because they have to find a place to live within a year. That often isn’t enough time when you are trying to get your license back and find a job, she noted.

“In football, it is illegal to pile on a downed player after a tackle,” said Shoreview resident Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor, who also spoke at the forum. One of the topics of conversation nationally about criminal justice reform is the creation of young adult courts. It is well known that if you can keep juveniles out of the adult system that their criminal history is more of a speed bump than a record, he noted. However, the brain continues to develop until the mid-20s and treating young adults differently could help.

Raj Sethuraju, associate professor at the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Education Center at Metropolitan State University, said that investing money in the community before it’s invested in the criminal justice system could also help keep people out of the system. Root causes of chemical dependency and mental health need to be addressed, he added.

The forum was hosted by Rep. Kelly Moller, District 42A, who serves on the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee. She said she cares about reforming the system she has worked in for so long as a prosecutor with Hennepin County. Moller represents the state and victims of felony-level appeals but has also become interested in the other side of the story. Among the 50 states, Minnesota has the 13th-highest rate of persons under correctional control. Correctional control includes those who are incarcerated as well as those on probation and parole.

The committee attempted to push a restore the vote initiative this last session, but political partisanship got in the way, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, committee chair from District 65B. The committee will continue to try to change the way people see those who have been incarcerated. “Criminal justice reform is about community; community is about belonging; belonging is about being seen as a human being,” Mariani noted.

Eight states have reinstated voting rights to ex-offenders over the last three years, Uggen said.

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