Minnesota could save $30 million a year if nonviolent drug offenders now flooding state prisons were sent to treatment instead, says the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission. The Minneapolis Star Tribune says the report to the legislature is likely to spur another round of debate over the fiscal and social effects of state policies that sent a record 938 drug offenders to prison in 2002.
The commission says Minnesota’s drug-sentencing laws are more severe — sometimes startlingly so — than those of many other states, especially in the Upper Midwest. Drug offenders admitted to Minnesota prisons in 2002 outnumbered those incarcerated for violent or property crimes, the first time that has occurred. Among all 12,978 felons sentenced in Minnesota in 2002 — 3,424 for drug crimes — a higher percentage of drug offenders went to prison compared with nondrug criminals.
Combatting illegal drugs has begun to dominate criminal justice in Minnesota in the last few years. As recently as 1990, drug offenders made up 9 percent of the state prison population; now they are 23 percent. Stiff drug penalties enacted as crack cocaine spread in the 1980s, and a court ruling that required equal treatment of crack and powder cocaine crimes, led to “a combination of intended and unintended consequences” for drug enforcement, the report said.
Police and prosecutors have consistently opposed rolling back drug penalties. There are hints law enforcement leaders may now support modest changes in a sentencing system that many agree has slipped seriously out of balance. The report notes that only a high rate of leniency by sentencing judges has kept drug offenders from consuming an even greater share of correctional resources.
“If we’re out of sync with other states, it’s worth it to take a look at it,” said Hennepin County prosecuting attorney Amy Klobuchar. “But we must keep a focus on drug dealers. We can’t go too far the other way.” Major crime is down 25 percent in Hennepin County since 1998, she said, largely because of aggressive police attacks on drug traffic that breeds violence and thievery. Poor inner-city neighborhoods would suffer a swift reversal of recent economic and livability gains if those efforts were blunted, she said.