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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

December 30, 2013
Associated Press

Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Dec. 30

Job training for inmates is money well-spent

Most felons don't have marketable job skills when they enter prison. Lack of career prospects, after all, makes one more likely to commit a crime. For far too many felons, their employment prospects don't improve much while they're serving their prison sentences. They have plenty of time to train for a new job, but the resources needed to provide that training are in short supply.

It's a vicious cycle. Upon their release, these former inmates not only lack skills but also must face employers who often are reluctant to hire someone with a felony record —and each rejection increases the likelihood that they will return to crime.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, a DFLer from Brooklyn Center who chairs the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee, expects vocational training for inmates to be discussed during the next legislative session.

"The research is pretty clear," Hilstrom said. "When you get people an education, training and experience, they're much less likely to re-offend. That's the standard most aspire to, getting folks in prison the chemical dependency help they need, the other kinds of treatment and education they need to not recidivate when they get out."

A study released in April from the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that an inmate who obtained a high school diploma or GED in prison was 59 percent more likely to find a job after being released. Another study found that post-secondary studies, such as vocational training or work toward a college degree, reduced the risk of re-arrest by 14 percent and the risk of re-incarceration by 24 percent.

It's not like there is a shortage of jobs, especially in Minnesota. Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said the Destination Medical Center expansion should provide opportunities locally for former inmates in construction trades, such as plumbing, carpentry, electrical and masonry. But they need training. "Once (offenders) start making a little bit of money, they can get housing," Ostrem said. "They can start paying their taxes. They don't need to revert to some of their roots."

Hilstrom said the support for vocational training corresponds to the business climate.

"When the economy is good, and everyone's working in those industries and they're in need of more employees, you tend to see more private partnerships with organizations coming in to do that kind of training," she said.

However, Rep. Steve Drazkowsi, of Mazeppa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee, wants to see more hard data before supporting legislation that would expand vocational education for inmates.

"I think you'll meet resistance to create another entitlement program for people who violate other people, especially without the proven, scientific evidence that it could be successful," he said.

Drazkowski also said there's an issue of fairness, using the example of a young person accumulating debt while going to college, while an inmate receives vocational training at public expense.

"One of the things we see over and over again is developing policy that rewards failure and punishes success." Drazkowski said. He also said some of his constituents have indicated their frustration that "we're creating these entitlements for people and a soft atmosphere in a situation that should be an undesirable place to be."

Yes, prison should be unpleasant, and we have no doubt it is. A few hours per day of training as a pipefitter or diesel mechanic won't turn a prison sentence into a stay at a country club. Nor can we envision someone deliberately seeking a prison sentence just to get a free education.

The bottom line is that convicted felons have two possible life-paths upon their release. They either get jobs and become tax-paying members of society, or they remain dependent on the state — and perhaps victimize other people on their path back to prison.

We know how much it costs to incarcerate someone for 20, 30 or 40 years. Perhaps we should spend a bit more in the first year or two on job training, in the hopes that years three to 40 are spent working, rather than lying on a cot in a taxpayer-funded prison.


The Free Press of Mankato, Dec. 30

Minnesota's new radon law a good step

Beginning Wednesday, anyone selling or buying a home in Minnesota will have a little more paperwork to add to the pile already required.

But the little extra work is worth the benefit to many people's health — perhaps even their lives.

The Minnesota Radon Awareness Act expands on an earlier law that required new homes to have a passive radon mitigation system built into them.

The new law requires anyone selling a home to provide information on whether the structure was ever tested for radon and if so, what the results were. Any tests have to be documented.

It's a reasonable law to help people guard against the odorless, colorless, tasteless radon that naturally seeps up through the ground and can find its way into homes. Long-term exposure to radon can cause cancer. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and more than 21,000 deaths are attributed to radon each year.

Minnesota has a higher radon problem than most states, with an estimated 1 in 3 existing homes having radon levels higher than recommended. And the greater Mankato area is particularly in a radon hot-spot. That's due to the geologic makeup of the area: those river bluffs are beautiful but fractures in the stone bluffs allows radon to seep up more easily.

The new law isn't overly burdensome. It does not require a homeowner to do a radon test before selling a home. But buyers in Minnesota can negotiate a radon test before purchase. It's a wise thing for any potential home buyer to do, considering the tests are inexpensive. If radon is detected in high levels, buyers can also negotiate having a mitigation system put in before the purchase or get a lower price on the home and have the mitigation done when they move in.

Some counties —including the environmental health office in Brown and Nicollet counties —are taking the opportunity of the new law to offer free radon testing kits on a first-come, first-served basis. But easy-to-use test kits can be bought at most home improvement and hardware stores.

If you do have high radon levels, the good news is that protecting yourself is not overly expensive. In Minnesota, radon mitigation can cost as little as a few hundred dollars, but usually averages just over $1,000. There are many contractors certified in installing radon mitigation systems.

Whether you're planning on selling your home or not, the new year is a good time to get your house tested for radon. It's a simple task that could have huge benefits.


Brainerd Dispatch, Dec. 30

Taking a quick look back at a tumultuous 2013

Many of the events of 2013 burned into our memory have more to do with the political landscape that has resulted from a divided America.

Government shutdowns, debt ceilings, a $17.2 trillion debt, low poll ratings for a divided Congress and an anemic rollout of the Affordable Care Act were all part of the bomb blasts that were headlines during the year we are about to see in our rearview mirror.

Names like Obamacare, Benghazi, NSA, Boehner, Reed, IRS and others are synonymous with the year 2013. None of those names is particularly endearing to anyone who had to weather the battles that ensued from each.

Not since Richard Nixon's Watergate has this nation been more divided and seemingly disgusted with its leaders. President Obama's year-end poll rating hit an all-time low of 39 percent saying the president is doing a good job. Congress is even sporting a more dismal poll rating of just 9 percent (that's House and Senate) and for the entire year the average approval rating for Congress was just 14 percent. That's the lowest approval rating in recent history. In fact, it's the lowest in the 39-year history of Gallup.

What has caused all of these sinking ratings of our nation's leaders?

Well, perhaps it's a symptom of our nation's divide. For example, more metropolitan areas tend to lean intensely liberal — New York, New Jersey, California, Washington and Oregon. However, fly-over country — Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana and other southern states —trend more conservative.

Gridlock was broken, according to many political observers, when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reached a compromised budget deal that was just signed by President Obama. Whether gridlock has been broken will be evident when the 114th Congress convenes after the first of the year.

A sneak peek would suggest that the 2014 midterm election could result in a huge turnover of the House or Senate and end the ongoing gridlock or it could return a majority of Republicans to the House and maintain Democratic control of the Senate and the net result would be gridlock. However, if the Democrats were to secure a majority in the House and Senate it would give the president the authority to push through more legislation similar to his legacy bill — the Affordable Care Act.



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