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DOC's Schnell: Keeping it honest.

Byline: Kevin Featherly

On the job just three months, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell is busy pushing his first biennial budget. He has strong support from Gov. Tim Walz and DFL House leaders.

He's faring less well with the Republican Senate, which declines so far to raise his base budget or fund inmate health care, even as it agrees to hire 66 new corrections officers by 2021. Schnell says the GOP budget, should it pass, would yield a net loss of DOC employees.

But negotiations are just starting.

During the Legislature's holiday break last week, the former police chief sat down with Minnesota Lawyer for an hour-long interview. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q. Do you feel your transition from cops to corrections is complete yet?

A. I don't know that it's ever going to be entirely complete. I feel like the adjustment has been good.

Q. You're settling in?

A. Yeah, I'm settled in. I think I'm more aware of some of the issues, more aware of what needs to be done. And really that comes from listening to people here. I had been following some of the reforms stuff, but now we're just much deeper into it. I think it has gone well.

Q. The governor said something in a press conference recently that struck me. I had asked him about the disparity between what you and he had asked for and what the Senate was offering. He said Minnesota seems to be the last law-and-order state. Do you feel like he's got a point?

A. It is interesting when you look at what's happening on the national front, where both sides of the aisle support criminal justice reform. Before I took this job and was still police chief in Inver Grove Heights, I participated in a panel discussion. It was me, Mayor [Melvin] Carter and [GOP] Congressmen Jason Lewis. Look at that mix. We were all talking about systems reform, criminal justice reform.

Q. You could have had President Trump on that panel.

A. Literally. That's true. I think there has been willingness in incredible ways to really look at revisiting this whole issue of second chances and whether the investment that we've been making in these things is really paying a dividend in the long haul.

Q. What's the answer?

A. There are times when it's not a great investment, because we have a paradigm that's oriented toward punishment.

We are all about needing to hold people accountable. But there comes a point in time where we need to really think about cost effectiveness and how we manage people in the community. I think that's really what the whole second chance thing is aboutwhat is most effective and what's most cost effective.

Q. Talk about what you mean by "the second chance thing."

A. The whole second chance notion is really a broad-based look at things. Like how do we better invest in education for people in corrections. That's one example. Parole options is another and some of the reforms around probation terms. And some of the reforms around earned credit compliance, where people who go into prison reduce their time because of the number and types of programs that they're involved in, which ultimately should make them less of a risk when they return to the community. It does seem a little crazy, you know, that we're not recognizing some of this.

Q. Those ideas include some of the recommendations in your budget request. Were you surprised about the degree to which the Senate budget bill denied that?

A. I wasn't. We've been having lots of meetings with legislators on both sides of the aisle. Some people were very honest about the fact that the targets were going to be lowin some cases embarrassingly low.

Q. Your idea for a Minnesota parole board also looks to be somewhat endangered right now, too.

A. Yeah. On the life sentences, we would like to see the parole board come to fruition. I think it's just good policy. It's smart policy. And when push comes to shove, people get it.

Q. One of the critiques of parole boards that they were notoriously bad at predicting who'd re-offend. With the more data-driven social science approach to corrections over recent decades, do you think you have a better handle on making those predictions?

A. I think better. We have developed good science and we have a lot of tools that can give us some predictive analysis.

But it's never 100 percent. I do think it's important that as a society, we have to just recognize the very simple reality that you can never entirely predict human behavior. We want to do everything we can to mitigate risk. But at the same time, as a society, community and world, we need to recognize that you cannot stop all the dangers that exist. You just can't.

Q. Do you worry that the politics of this might turn against you and that you might be seen as weak for admitting that there is this sort of gap between what you can predict and what you can't?

A. For me, part of the whole issue of transparency and openness is honesty.

The last thing I want to have my name associated with is making the wrong decision. There's nobody that wants to make the wrong decision. But at the same time, we should recognize when people have made significant progress. We can make some calculated risk assessments based on what they have done, their history and so forth. We can identify kind of reasonable mechanisms to supervise and manage them in the community. But there is no 100 percent guarantee. The minute that people believe that there is, it's a setup.

Q. What is the philosophy behind this new era of DOC openness? Even the agency's Facebook page has taken on almost a cheerful character. You brought us all in en masse to tour the Stillwater prison in January. What's at the core of it?

A. It's community policing. This is community policing in corrections. The folks that are in our prisons and, frankly, the victimsand this is a little bit philosophicalthey belong to all of us. We all share some of the burden for creating safe communities. We need to inform people, engage people, have them feel like they have a say and a role and can make a difference. And we do that. Oftentimes, it's through people like you and other folks in the media.

Q. I was stunned the day I saw DOC put out a notice on Facebook that there was a fugitive on the loose and the department wanted the public's help to find him. I'd never seen anything like that from DOC.

A. Yeah. I mean, this is community policing. That's all it is. That is the essence of community corrections.

Q. So the prison then becomes something more like a community facility and less a dungeon that the public gets shut out from and would be horrified if exposed to it?

A. Right. Exactly. Without a doubt. We have to do that.

Q. Let's talk about prison violence. Earlier this month, KSTP-TV showed footage from Oak Park Heights of an assault that left Corrections Officer James Lange seriously injured. In the footage, we see two guards checking inmates as they leave a gym. One goes through a metal detector, circles back and attacks Lange. A second guard tries to help but is thwarted by another inmate. Eventually more officers show up and stop the attack. If your department's requests were granted, how might an incident like that play out differently?

A. We ultimately would have more people around just to staff these posts. Especially right nowwe oftentimes find ourselves forcing overtime and running at a bare minimum. It's never good when that becomes the operating mode.

All that said, even if we could hire 1,000 officers you will never, ever entirely stop issues of violence in the prisons. Or in the community. We could put a million cops in the street and you will never stop all of it. We can mitigate it. We can reduce risk. We can increase the likelihood of being able to more swiftly intervene and to deter by having more presence.

Those are all realities and things that we need to do. But if we're going to be honest, we will never have it all gone.

Q. Democrats will defend your agenda in forthcoming negotiations. But let's say the Senate position prevails and you are forced to choose one key initiative to preserve. Which would it be?

A. To be frank, our number one priority has to be, is and will remain staffing. Because if we don't have that, we can't do anything else.

I remain hopeful. I think Senator [Warren] Limmer [the Senate Judiciary chairman] realizes, when push comes to shove, the awkward position we're in. You can give us 150 officers [by the end of 2023], but if you don't fund our base the way it should be funded, there's a net loss. It's a shell game then. And I think people were sensitive to that. Now what that ultimately looks like when the real sausage-making begins, we'll see.

Q. The governor tied announcement of your appointment to the naming of his two education chiefs. How seriously do you take his idea that education and corrections are connected?

A. Just in the past three weeks in that conference room [next door to Schnell's office], we met with the commissioners from the departments of Education and Higher Ed. We're all meeting with Mrs. [Gwen] Walz [the governor's wife] next month to have further conversations. So I think it's not contrived. We're committed to really trying to make a difference around how education higher ed and corrections works together. And that's pretty exciting and pretty cutting edge.

Q. How would it work?

A. We're looking at things like how to make sure we cover the adult basic education needs of people coming into prison. Because we know that there are a lot of them that have not completed their educations.

We are a large [Adult Basic Education] providerthe second largest in the state. And so we need to continue doing that. But we also need to maximize our secondary education programs, both on the vocational-technical side and evenfor some of these longer-term offendersdegree-seeking programs.

Ultimately, when they do get out, that is truly an investment that pays dividends. If you look at what's happened in other parts of the country, where these higher-ed investments have happened recidivism is negligible. It entirely changes their lives. And not only their lives. If they've got kids, it changes the trajectory of their whole families.

Q. You're hobbled a little bit in the wake of the Joseph Gomm killing, because you can't let people out of their prison cells as often due to heightened security concerns.

A. That's why we have to get our staff complement full. Because once we have that, I think we can make a big difference.

Q. T. Williams, the state's original corrections ombudsman, told me he thinks a new ombudsman could effectively argue to open up the workshops and get inmates back into vocational training. Is he right?

A. Yeah. When I get letters from inmateswhich is on a daily basisor when I go up to the facilities, a number of them say that we need more opportunities for education and vocational training. One guy talked about how he's getting out and really needs to complete his carpenter's certificate because he knows that's going to help him when he gets out, to get a better paying job.

I've been very clear about this: I'm committed to getting those programs reopened.

Q. What's the hold up?

A. It's bodies, sound staffing. That's the key.

Q. So nothing is preventing that except that you don't have enough people?

A. Look, we are going to have to bring people along. Because there were many people who said after the Gomm death that we can never go back to any type of tool-based industries in the prisons.

Q. That was the impression I got in January talking to people at Stillwater.

A. Right. And yet I really feel, after having conversations with staff and thinking about our tactics and looking at some of the options that we might employ, that there are better, higher-levels of improvement that we can do around tool control. Like putting cameras in and doing better assessments of who is accessing those tool-based programs. There are things we can do in ways that I think people can feel better about.

I've had a number of officers talk to me about the fact that they hope we can get these programs to reopen. They want to do it smart. They want to do it right. I do, too.

Q. What's been the most surprising thing about this job so far?

A. People asked me a lot about the fact that this is an entirely different world from what I had before. I think probably the most surprising thing is it's not that different.

The reality is that it's in the public safety arena. It's entirely a people business. It has been a largely insular fieldlaw enforcement was very much the same way. Even some of the stronger male orientation of the workforce, that is very similar. When we think about the outcomes stuff happening on the police front, we're very similar. We were looking at what is good public policy in terms of how we police. It's the same here.

Q. So corrections is really just policing a particularly tough neighborhood?

A. It almost is. The practices are different. But kind of the essence of the work? it's not that different.

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Publication:Minnesota Lawyer
Date:Apr 23, 2019
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