Minnesota Sentencing Commission Report Says State Could Save $30 Million Per Year With Treatment Not Prison 1/23/04

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A special report on drug offenders released last week by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has opened the door for another round of debate in the state legislature over what to do about the spiraling cost of increasing drug offenders. That report found the state could save $30 million a year if nonviolent drug offenders were sent to treatment instead of prison.

Since 1989, Minnesota has embarked an ever-harsher war on drugs, with the percentage of drug prisoners rising from 9% in 1989 to 23% in 2002. That year, for the first time ever, Minnesota sent more people to prison for drug offenses than for either violent or property offenses, and for longer. Average drug sentences more than doubled in length between 1988 -- the last year before the state's current harsh drug laws went into effect -- from under two years (22.9 months) to over four years (50.2 months) in that period, the report found.

The commission found that one reason Minnesota has so many drug offenders behind bars is that its punishments are much stricter than those of neighboring Upper Midwest states. But the state is also paying the price for its war against crack cocaine, with penalties being increased throughout the late-1980s, and in an ironic twist, a 1990 court ruling on discrepancies between powder and crack cocaine made it worse. After that ruling, Minnesota decided to punish powder violators as severely as crack violators instead of lessening penalties for the latter. This is not surprising for a state who complex sentencing guidelines explicitly equate drug sales over a rather low threshold with "rape by force or threat."

That decision was only one of many that led to "a combination of intended and unintended consequences" for drug warriors and the state budget, the report said. "In addition, reductions in treatment resources at both the state and local levels have contributed to a growing number of drug offenders recycling through our criminal justice system," the report noted.

The sentencing guideline commission consists of three members of the state judiciary, a county sheriff, a county prosecutor, a public defender, the state corrections commissioner, and two "citizen representatives" appointed by the governor. The makeup of the commission may help to explain the limited -- if progressive within the context of Minnesota crime and drug politics in recent years -- nature of its "options for consideration," which were:

  • Maintain the status quo. This option would entail "additional appropriations" to pay for more prison beds for the projected growth in drug war prisoners and for more prison-based drug treatment programs. The commission put the cost of new prison construction alone under this option at $58.2 million by 2012.
  • Reduce sentences by adjusting "thresholds," or quantities of a given drug that trigger stiffer penalties or a presumption of drug dealing. The commission gave the example of a man, "John Smith," caught with 10 grams of cocaine. Under the 1982 sentencing guidelines, he would have been sentenced to a year's probation; with changes in 1986, he would have served two years in prison; under the post-1989 legislative regime, he would serve seven years in prison. The commission suggested returning to the pre-1989 sentencing guidelines.
  • Reduce sentences by adjusting the state's complicated sentencing guideline structure. The changes envisioned by the commission under this option would involve downsizing some drug offenses to reduce maximum sentences faced. The commission found that Minnesota drug sentences were both "somewhat disproportionate" in the region and perceived to be disproportionate by Minnesota judges, who granted downward departures in drug cases at a rate much than those for other offenses.
  • Develop, implement, and pay for a community-based punishment and treatment program to reduce the number of drug offenders returned to prison for parole or probation violations. It would cost, the commission conceded, but "these costs would be less per offender than the annual cost to incarceration an offender in a state correctional facility."
  • Develop a comprehensive sentencing policy for drug offenders "guided by the need to protect public safety, hold the offender accountable for his/her illegal behavior and provide a meaningful opportunity for the offender to address his/her substance abuse problem and drug related behavior."
Rep. Keith Ellison (DFL-Minneapolis) didn't wait for the commission to introduce a bill raising the amount of cocaine or methamphetamine needed to trigger the state's harsh sentences. Now, anyone caught with a half-ounce of either drug faces seven years in prison. Under Ellison's bill, that threshold would jump to two ounces. "We've got to reserve our prison cells for the truly dangerous," Ellison told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Other officials reacted to the commission's finding that Minnesota's sentences were tougher than neighboring states. "We have to figure out what is the right level of deterrence and get in line with other states," Rep. Eric Lipman (R-Lake Elmo) said. "Why would we be way out front?"

"If we're out of sync with other states, it's worth it to take a look at it," Hennepin County (Minneapolis) prosecuting attorney Amy Klobuchar told the Star-Tribune. "But we must keep a focus on drug dealers. We can't go too far the other way."

Visit http://www.msgc.state.mn.us to read the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission "Special Report to the Legislature on Drug Offender Sentencing" online.

To read about Rep. Ellison's sentencing reform bill, HF1037, go to http://www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/legis.asp and type the bill number in the search function.

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