An emotional crowd jammed a hearing yesterday as Minnesota leaders tried sorting through a proposal to overhaul the state’s drug sentencing guidelines to decrease prison time and better distinguish addicts from potentially violent drug dealers, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Nearly three dozen people, from faith leaders and recovering addicts to police officers, addressed the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to offer two distinct viewpoints. Supporters of the changes say the state's sentencing laws are draconian and tearing apart families, as relatively harmless drug users are locked up for too long. They say that drug addiction should be addressed with treatment, not imprisonment.
Law enforcement officials said that while they support an overhaul for low-level offenders, the proposed changes will enable high-level and often violent drug dealers to continue their trade with reduced risk of spending significant time behind bars. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and committee chairman Christopher Dietzen said the proposal is a compromise between the two sides. While it lowers the amount of prison time for the most serious drug dealers, it is also sets more lenient sentences for those convicted of possession. The changes would allow judges more latitude to increase sentences for major drug dealers, but also include more leniency in some cases to enable addicts to enter treatment rather than prison. The commission will vote on the proposed changes Dec. 30. Unless the legislature intervenes, they will take effect in August. Analysts say that the changes could save 523 prison beds in Minnesota by 2028.