The Omnibus Public Safety Act passed by the Minnesota legislature and signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was mainly about creating new methamphetamine offenses and tough new meth penalties, as well as cracking down on sex offenders, and that's what most of the noise was about during the legislative session and even at the signing ceremony. But the measure also includes a time-limited provision allowing the early release of a limited number of drug offenders once they have completed drug treatment behind bars, and that provision marks the first time since Minnesota revamped its sentencing laws in 1988 that the state's trend toward harsher sentencing and ever-increasing prison populations has seen a hint of being reversed.
Persons granted conditional early release under the provision will be subject to strict supervision and a pre-release screening to ensure they pose no threat to public safety. The provision mandates electronic ankle-bracelets, frequent drug tests, aftercare, and employment and residence requirements.
The provision sounds like a small step in the right direction, said Ryan King, an analyst for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based group calling for more humane sentencing policies. "The ultimate goal is to keep people in the community and connected to family, jobs, and social networks whenever possible," said King. "Ideally, we would never have the person leave the community. Treatment in the community is ideal, and the quicker people can get back in the community, the better. The longer people have to serve in prison, the more difficult it is for them to successfully reenter society," he told DRCNet.
"This new law ensures a smart reallocation of our resources for sentencing drug offenders," said state Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen), who along with Sen. Tom Neuville (R-Northridge) championed the bill. "It empowers law enforcement, corrections and chemical health professionals to identify individuals who want to take responsibility for their addictions and earn the chance at an early release and a fresh start -- a reform initiative that 70% of Minnesotans support," Ortman said in a statement greeting the bill's signing into law. "This is a cautious step forward at a new focus for treating drug offenders. Drug possession will still be a felony in Minnesota, and the presumptive sentence for a first degree drug possession crime will still be 86 months -- which is significantly higher than our neighbors in nearby states," Ortman continued.
But for a state prison system that is among the nation's growth leaders in recent years, with the inmate population climbing by 45% in the last five years, driven largely by meth and sex offenders, the number of prisoners affected will be minimal. Last year alone, the prison population jumped more than 13% to more than 8,600, with some 1,100 of those prisoners doing time for meth, up from 139 only two years earlier. Minnesota Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz McClung said the exact number of offenders eligible was not yet known because criteria were still being drafted, but "it will be a very select group of offenders," she told DRCNet. "It won't be a large number, it won't be in the hundreds," she said.
"There are about 150 who might be eligible," Ortman told DRCNet. "That doesn't mean all of them will meet the necessary conditions. This is an experimental program, and we will be studying this as we go, watching recidivism, watching what happens when they leave prison. We are hopeful it will lead to a better understanding of how to help these people become responsible members of society. If we can do that, we will have succeeded," she told DRCNet.
The restrictions limiting broad application of the reform was intentional, said Ortman. "We did want to limit its application at least for now until we see if it will be successful." Ortman took a similarly cautious tack on whether the program would be expanded in two years. "The question now is not whether we expand it after two years, but whether we continue it and whether we make this part of our sentencing policy and practice in Minnesota."
Meanwhile, the Gopher State is headed for even more prisoners with the sex offender and meth provisions signed into law in the omnibus bill. The meth provisions include restrictions on the sales of cold medicines containing meth precursors (they must be kept behind the counter), making the theft of anhydrous ammonia, another precursor, a felony offense, and making meth use or production around children a crime. The bill also increases penalties for meth offenses, now treating them the same way the state treats heroin and cocaine.
Ortman saw no inconsistency in voting for both harsh new methamphetamine penalties and calling for a drug treatment-related early release for some prisoners. "In Minnesota, we are tougher than many states. Possession of any drug in any amount is a felony, and we don't want to see that change, but we do want to have a safety valve. Our presumptive sentences for drug crimes here are among the longest in the region, and our prison population is growing very fast. If we can get some nonviolent drug offenders treated and out of prison, we will be using our resources more efficiently by making those beds available for violent offenders."
"We supported the meth bill because its provisions will help allay some of the meth manufacturing in our state," said Harlan Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. "We did not have a position on the provision about shorter sentences for some drug offenders. Our job is to enforce the law, and it's up to the courts and corrections to deal with people from there," he told DRCNet.
And it is up to the politicians to rewrite the sentencing laws. After 15 years of harsh sentencing, Minnesota politicians have begun that process, although it clearly a process that remains fraught with contradiction.