ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's prison population is ballooning, due in a large part to a growing number of inmates convicted of drug-related crimes.
And some in the legal system say some drug offenders are sentenced to too much prison time.
With those two issues merging, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission last month voted to move toward reducing drug sentences. There is a public hearing Wednesday on the matter and the commission plans to take its final vote on the issue Dec. 30, with an August effective date.
The issue has pitted natural antagonists, prosecutors and defense attorneys, against each other. County attorneys, along with many in law enforcement, strongly oppose lowering drug sentences while defense attorneys like the idea of giving their clients less, or no, time behind bars.
Drug-related offenders occupy two-thirds of the Minnesota prison beds, Executive Director Nathaniel J. Reitz of the guidelines commission recently told a prison population task force.
More than 2,000 of Minnesota's 10,000 prisoners are in because of drug crimes, and most of them are due to methamphetamine-related arrests. Many other inmates are in for crimes that involved drugs, but they were sentenced for other offenses.
Reitz said that the commission's plan could reduce prison populations by hundreds.
Many states are looking at changes like Minnesota's sentencing commission proposes, both because of overcrowding and because many policymakers say long sentences enacted since the early 1980s are not making the public safer.
Gov. Mark Dayton emphasized prison population reduction. He said that "all the cards need to be turned face up on the table" when prison overcrowding solutions are debated, including shorter drug sentences.
"It is going to be one of the major issues in front of the Legislature," Dayton said.
Chairman Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, of the Minnesota House public safety committee said that he opposes the move to lighter sentences. Low-level dealers who sell drugs just to support their own habit may deserve less time, or even not go to prison at all, Cornish said, but most drug criminals deserve the time they get.
"I am not hearing a lot of positive feedback from the law enforcement community on this," said Cornish, a long-time law enforcement officer. "To reduce prison cost just by letting people go, I am not in favor with. Some people think these are minor drug offenses. They are not."
While the Legislature could overturn the guidelines commission proposal, which Cornish would like, he does not see that happening.
"The easy way out for the Legislature is not to take action," he said, which would allow the new sentences to begin in August.
Even if the Republican-controlled House votes against the changes, the Democratic Senate is not likely to follow. Cornish's Senate counterpart, Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said he opposes stopping the commission's proposals.
A Minneapolis defense attorney said more emphasis is needed on treatment.
"Regardless of whether these proposals are actually approved and implemented, focusing on treatment of a person’s underlying drug addiction rather than simply putting them in prison for a number of years would be a far more effective use of resources for society as a whole in most cases," Justin Duffy wrote in his blog.
The Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers plans to give the sentencing commission a document calling the sentence reduction proposal "a necessary and positive first step in reducing Minnesota's wasteful, destructive and ineffective use of extremely long sentences for relatively low-level nonviolent drug crimes."
Prosecutors see things differently.
The Minnesota County Attorneys' Association points out that commission members representing prosecutors and law enforcement opposed sentencing changes in the commission's 7-3 vote last month.
County attorneys released a document opposing reduction in first-degree drug offender sentences, in some cases from 86 months to 48 months in prison.
"Reducing sentences for these types of offenders is just not right and it is not in the interest of public safety," the document says.
Prosecutors say that while some drug laws are "unnecessarily harsh," state law fails to distinguish between violent and nonviolent drug offenders, something that would need to be changed in the Legislature, not sentencing commission.
Drug sentencing proposals
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission proposes to shorten some prison terms for drug-related crimes:
- Those convicted of first-degree drug crimes, the worst classification, would receive 65 to 125 month sentences. That is down from the current 86 to 158 months.
- Sentences would be higher for drug kingpins and other major drug distributors when there are aggravating factors. They would be lower for small, chemically dependent dealers who need treatment.
- Some second-degree offenders who now would go to prison could be given probation instead if they have no criminal history and obey laws and probation rules.
A public hearing about the proposed changes is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 10 of the State Office Building, near the state Capitol in St. Paul. The commission is expected to make its final decision at a meeting a week later.