Minnesota state prisons are full to overflowing, the result of longer, tougher sentencing and a reluctance by legislators to bear the costs of more inmates who spend more years incarcerated at taxpayer expense.
Lawmakers can act now to change that, rather than punting this mess into another year. First, they should permit a dramatic revision of sentencing by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to go forward. Set to take effect this August unless prohibited by the Legislature, the proposal would significantly reduce sentences for drug users and sellers, saving the state hundreds of bed spaces in coming years.
Make no mistake, drug offenders would not get off scot-free. Most would spend five to 10 years in prison. But that’s down from the current seven to 13 years, which is far longer than the national norm. Judges also would obtain badly needed flexibility to issue longer sentences to those running sophisticated dealer networks and reduced sentences for small-time offenders willing to undergo treatment.
The state has withdrawn an ill-considered proposal to spend $141 million expanding the prison at Rush City. Such a move would make little sense while the Prairie Correctional Facility sits vacant. Built by the city of Appleton in the 1990s in a desperate bid for a boost to its ailing economy, the facility was taken over by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest for-profit private prison operation. Unable to keep it filled, CCA shuttered the facility in 2010, but has continued to maintain the property.
There is a bill to reopen Prairie Correctional as a state-run facility operated by union prison guards, with CCA as the landlord. That could alleviate systemwide overcrowding, but would cost about $40 million a year for 1,000 beds, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) officials. The plan is strongly opposed by those who object to incarceration that profits a private company and those who say more prison space would worsen racial disparities in a system where blacks are already overrepresented. Both points are worth considering. But opponents also face some tough realities. Criminals sent to state prison typically have committed serious offenses and should face appropriate penalties. Some are capable of rehabilitation; others are not. Some of the penalties Minnesota has added — felony-level DWI and tougher sentencing for gun-related offenses — were needed.
The common ground here can be a commitment to keep sentence length appropriate to the crime, while expanding rehabilitative programs that are proven to lower recidivism and get offenders on a more positive path. The vast majority of inmates enter prison with substance-abuse issues. Many are high-school dropouts with poor social skills. A growing number suffer from mental illness. Without intervention, their long-term prospects for a successful re-entry into society are bleak.
The DOC now has a smart, nuanced plan that builds off the Sentencing Guidelines recommendations. The plan would add resources to rehabilitative efforts such as the Challenge Incarceration Program, a boot camp that combines therapeutic treatment, physical training, close supervision and aftercare to prepare motivated, nonviolent offenders for a new path. Those who succeed in the program could shave 42 months off their sentences. The recidivism rate could drop by as much as a third, and every year of sentence reduction would save the state $33,000. The DOC also has proposals to deal with the number of probation violators who return to prison. Commissioner Tom Roy has said the proposals — which would require a fraction of the funds needed for a Rush City expansion — could eliminate overcrowding within a few years.
The Legislature should allow the Sentencing Guidelines proposal to go through and provide funding for the DOC plan to eliminate overcrowding. The payoff could be fewer prisoners and more who get a chance at a fresh start. But if overcrowding continues, the state should reopen Appleton as a state-run facility before considering more brick-and-mortar projects to expand existing prisons.