The Minnesota Teen Challenge Choir

The Minnesota Teen Challenge Choir performed at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, for Second Chance Day. Hosted by the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, Wednesday's rally spotlighted criminal justice reform bills up for consideration this legislative session. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service

ST PAUL — Pleading for a second chance for Minnesotans who serve their time, advocates and lawmakers filled the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday, Feb. 19, to call for criminal justice reform this legislative session.

The Minnesota Second Chance Coalition hosted its 12th annual Second Chance Day in St. Paul, aiming to shine a spotlight on five specific criminal justice bills up for consideration this session: bills that would reform the state's clemency process, restore voting rights to Minnesotans on probation, eliminate driver's license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines, end life sentences for juveniles and offer judges sentencing alternatives for parents who are primary caregivers to their children.

At a Wednesday news conference, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the state's criminal justice system "has actually failed" many incarcerated people, following them long after they finish their prison sentences and rippling out into their communities.

"At some point, punishment has to end," he said. "We are a state of second chances. We are a country that believes in redemption."

Advocates say the five bills highlighted Wednesday would help formerly incarcerated Minnesotans move on with their lives and stop the cycle of recidivism and generational trauma: A refined clemency process would make it easier for deserving Minnesotans to expunge their records; restoring voting rights to those who served their time would allow them to participate in democracy; offering alternatives to imprisonment for parents could keep families together, they said.

For Tonja Honsey, founder of the advocacy group We Rise, said she "never remember(s) having a choice" whether to enter the criminal justice system. She grew up in an unstable home that struggled to put food on the table, and she began selling drugs as a preteen.

Now out after years in prison, she said she's still working to mend her bonds with her children and community.

"When we look at incarceration and what it does to families — what it does to the children, what it does to communities — what it does is separate us," she said. "It keeps us from connecting with each other."

With this year's bills on the table, she said legislators have an opportunity "to empower people, rather than just continue to lock people up."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, noted Wednesday that House Democrats passed last year's bill to restore voting rights to felons after incarceration, but House File 40 did not make it past the Senate. This year, Hortman said she foresees the House passing it again.

First lady Gwen Walz joined the rally to call legislators to "do better" and push for committee hearings on all of the bills on the table.

"We have research. We have ideas. We have stories that will tell us how to do better," she said. "If we fail to listen ... shame on us."

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