Rally held for improved ex-convict rights

The goal of the rally was to foster discussion about those with criminal records.

Tom Moran

Charles Jensen’s mental illness was misdiagnosed for 15 years, which led to him being bounced from prison to prison on felony charges.

In 2004, he was moved to a mental health facility and diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features; his troubles with the law ended there.

Jensen spoke about the importance of treating mentally ill convicts and the difficulties of reintegration into society at a rally Wednesday.

Around 400 people gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda Wednesday to rally for improved rights for ex-convicts at the first-ever “Second Chance Day on the Hill.”

Sarah Walker, the director of juvenile services at 180 Degrees Inc., one of the organizers of the event, said the goal of the rally was to foster discussion.

“Talking about people with criminal records has been so stigmatized that it just dies,” she said. “It never even makes it to session.”

Speakers at the event included ex-convicts, such as Jensen, as well as county attorneys and state lawmakers, such as State Senator Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen.

“We all have an interest because we’ve all made mistakes,” she said to the crowd.

Ortman wrote legislation last year that would make it easier for ex-convicts to have criminal records expunged, or sealed, in certain cases. The bill did not make it to the floor.

“The biggest obstacle we have is fear,” she said.

Christopher Uggen, a University sociology professor who attended the event, said more than 600,000 people are released from prison each year. He said a major problem facing society is how to reintegrate them into normal life.

“The problems are daunting – former offenders have often burned a lot of bridges,” he said. “They have housing problems, they have employment problems, they have family problems.”

Uggen said there is a “real social interest” in trying to smooth the transition from prison to life outside.

Gender, women and sexuality studies sophomore Jill Bartel said she attended the rally for the University course Theories and Practices of Social Change Organizing.

Bartel said she thinks it was important to create awareness on the issue.

Bartel said she sees the results of this issue everyday when she sees homeless men and women on the streets.

“It’s important for these people to build community,” she said.

Walker said the event was an important step to improving laws affecting ex-convicts.

“I think this is the first time that anyone has tried to bring nontraditional, ex-offenders to the Capitol,” she said. “I would say 60 to 80 percent of the people there probably were people who have never participated in the political process and have criminal records.”

Stephen Rosenstone, University vice president for scholarly and cultural affairs, said he disagrees that a gathering the size of Wednesday’s could have a significant impact on policy.

“I doubt a single event isolated is going to make a difference unless it’s a humongous event,” he said.

Rosenstone said the rally would help the cause in some other ways, however.

“Nevertheless, they help draw attention to the issues and let legislators know people care deeply about those issues,” he said.