Testimony on sentencing reform by Michael Kuhne

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My name is Michael Kuhne, and I am a volunteer at Jewish Community Action (JCA).  I am also the social justice committee chair at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul.  I speak in support of the recommended sentencing guideline reforms.

The Hebrew year 5775, which drew to a close this past October, was a year of shmita--a mini-jubilee occurring once every seven years. During the shmita in biblical times, Jewish people were taught to release slaves and release debts--and in the process--right the wrongs of economic injustice.  While economic injustice looks different today, it must be taken no less seriously.  That is why JCA organized the Twin Cities Jewish community to host nearly 40 house meetings that, along with a series of synagogue programs, were attended by over 450 people.  During the two-hour meetings, people gathered to analyze economic injustice through meaningful discussion.  

Over the course of six months of house meetings, three issues percolated to the top, and on August 30, nearly 150 people gathered to decide which issue would be the focus of JCA.  Not surprisingly, given the economic effects on families of the incarcerated and the difficulty for releasees to obtain jobs, housing, or needed services, criminal justice reform garnered the most support. 

Criminal justice reform motivates us because we are driven by the value of b’tzelem elohim, the belief that we are all made in the image of God.  We are also motivated by our understanding of shmita, a time when we are asked to release the debts of others. We welcome these modest sentencing reforms to shorten the time served of many prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.  We embrace these sentencing reforms to hasten the return of a mother or father, a son or a daughter, to their families and communities.  We applaud Minnesota’s sentencing reform effort within the larger context of a nation which is re-examining not only its sentencing guidelines but also its entire criminal justice system.

I have a special connection to this issue.  Since 1995, I have taught at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  I feel especially proud to follow two MCTC graduates who have already testified (Randy Anderson and Ryan Else).  It has been my honor to teach many young people who arrive in my classroom fresh from the prison system.  I am inspired by students like Trina, a single mother of four who is turning her life around after five years in the Shakopee Prison for Women.  I am humbled by students like Drew, who spent over half of his life in prison, recently earned his associates degree at MCTC, and who is now finishing his degree in pastoral studies at the University of Northwestern.  I am motivated to do all I can to teach students like Randy, who after incarceration has proven himself not only an outstanding student but also an upstanding citizen making meaning contributions to society.  

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, it costs over $40,000 to imprison someone annually. What if we reinvested some of those dollars and redirected them to divert minor offenders and to support and assist those coming out of the prison system? These sentencing guideline changes, executed as part of a larger effort, can quicken and enhance the second chance so many deserve.


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