ST. PAUL -- As Minnesota lawmakers face a multi-billion-dollar state deficit and public calls to reform public safety following the death of George Floyd, officials are debating where to prioritize funding for state Departments of Public Safety and Corrections.
In an hours-long and wide-ranging informational hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 1, the Minnesota House's Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee discussed the Department of Corrections' recent decision to close two correctional facilities in northeast Minnesota, as well as a bill on rape kit testing.
Earlier this year, Minnesota was projected to see a $1.5 billion surplus, but the coronavirus pandemic and related costs swung the fiscal pendulum and the state now has a projected $2.4 billion deficit. The DOC alone is facing a $14 million budget shortfall, and announced in August plans to close two of its smallest correctional facilities -- Togo and Willow River -- in an attempt to cut costs.
It's the first time the state is closing a correctional facility in more than two decades. Commissioner Paul Schnell told legislators Tuesday that it was one of the most difficult decisions he has made in his career, but it would ultimately save the department more than $10 million this year.
Legislators are considering extending a lifeline to the two facilities, should they pass emergency funding for the Togo and Willow River. The DOC said in August that most of the 100 or so employees between the two facilities would be laid off entirely. Several of those employees pleaded with legislators Tuesday for more funds.
Tiffany McComas, who has worked as a counselor at MCF Togo since 2013, said she doesn't feel that the inmates she works with won't be able to get the same level of care and attention she's able to provide at a small facility. Her husband is also an employee at Togo, and if they both lose their jobs, she said they'd have to uproot their home and newborn baby, she said.
Legislators on Tuesday also discussed a bill to establish uniform statewide practices for sexual assault kit testing and storage, in hopes of making the process more uniform and easily accessible for survivors of sexual assault no matter where they live in the state. Under the state's current system, Lindsay Brice -- the legal director for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault -- said procedures are under local control, making the process different for survivors depending on where they live.
The bill would require all unrestricted rape kits to be tested, establish a duration of time for kits to be stored at a central facility at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and establish a database where survivors could see the status of their kits. Public Safety Chair Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, said Tuesday that the bill has bipartisan support, but has nevertheless stalled in the Senate. He suggested it could be passed during a special session this month, should legislators be called.
Tuesday's hearing was informational and the legislators did not take action.