The School of Law Building at dusk in October. Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas
Mark Brown

Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and School of Law Launch Sentence Review Partnership

A new Minnesota law that allows for reducing sentences of incarcerated individuals has led to a new partnership between the University of St. Thomas School of Law and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office (HCAO).

The new Prosecutor-Initiated Sentence Adjustment (PISA) law that went into effect in Minnesota on Aug. 1, 2023, is already in place in at least five states. It gives prosecutors the authority to review past cases and sentences and recommend to the courts incarcerated individuals who they believe qualify for a reduced sentence or possible release.

The School of Law and the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office have established an office at the law school that will review cases and develop recommendations for prosecutors, while giving law students an opportunity for hands-on learning. The collaboration will be funded through an anonymous donor for two years.

Joel Nichols.
Interim Dean Joel Nichols

“Just as we advocate for justice for victims of crimes and fair trials for those accused of crimes, our belief in the dignity of each person compels us to advocate for fairness in sentencing and punishment,” said Joel Nichols, the interim dean at the St. Thomas law school. “This project allows St. Thomas to work on behalf of people who have rehabilitated themselves so that they are seen for more than just their past criminal acts.”

“Circumstances change over time and some people in prison no longer need to be there to protect public safety or serve the interests of justice,” Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said. “It’s our responsibility as prosecutors to seek justice. Protecting public safety does not end at sentencing. More people are serving time in prison for Hennepin County convictions than any other county. This new process will help us consider individual cases in a fair, transparent way.”

Julie Jonas standing in hallway.
Law Professor Julie Jonas

Law Professor Julie Jonas is leading the project at the School of Law. Prior to becoming a professor at St. Thomas, she worked as the legal director for the Great North Innocence Project.

“We anticipate that this program will manage a large backlog of HCAO applications for PISA while also providing law students valuable experience in data collection and summary, case analysis and legal drafting,” Jonas said. “It will also ensure that worthy candidates for PIR have their cases screened in a thorough, thoughtful and timely manner.”

St. Thomas hired two attorneys who will identify incarcerated people and cases for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office to reconsider.

“This project is a great example of the kind of impact that we can have on the community while providing excellent educational opportunities for our students,” Nichols said.

Learn more about PISA on the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office website.