Minnesota lawmakers unveiled proposals to address prison overcrowding Wednesday, ranging from overhauling drug sentencing to creating more space for inmates by reopening a private prison.
The informal recommendations came from a task force convened in response to a sharp rise in the state's prison population over the past 15 years.
The Department of Corrections' 10 adult facilities are over capacity, and more than 500 inmates are being housed in county jails. Over the past six months, task force members have studied data and heard a wide range of testimony from prison officials and other experts on problems facing Minnesota's corrections system, as well as potential avenues to reduce the incarcerated population or expand capacity.
The proposals — some detailed plans, others only loose frameworks — offered a preview into what to expect as legislators attempt to address overcrowding this session, which begins next week. They also highlighted points of strong disagreement among some political leaders, signaling that major policy changes won't come easily — if they come at all.
At the end of the meeting, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said task force members had brought up "some good ideas to chew on. However, said Cornish: "I think it will be tough between now and the end of session to pass any of them."
Dispute over drug reform
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, co-chairman of the task force, presented a plan geared toward finding ways to reduce the prison population, primarily through expanding early release programs for inmates and reforming Minnesota's drug laws.
Last December, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission — an independent agency that makes recommendations for judges — passed a landmark overhaul that would drastically reduce sentences for some drug offenders. If legislators do nothing, the reforms will go into effect Aug. 1.
Latz wants to let those changes proceed, and for lawmakers to amend the proposal and make them retroactive, meaning those already sentenced under the previous guidelines could get reduced time in prison. Latz also suggested lowering the penalties for fifth-degree drug sentences, which he said would save more than 550 beds over the next decade.
Cornish, also a co-chairman of the task force, strongly opposes drug reforms, and said he will introduce a bill to block the guidelines commission's overhaul this session. He said easing sentences doesn't make sense at a time when use of drugs like meth and heroin are on the rise.
The Appleton option
Instead, Cornish prefers to reopen Prairie Correctional Facility, a privately owned prison in Appleton, Minn. The 1,660-bed prison has been vacant since 2010. Some legislators will push to lease and operate the facility this year for inmate overflow. That option is already facing strong opposition from legislators and a growing coalition of unions and religious groups who say the facility's owner, Corrections Corporation of America, has a history of mismanagement and bad practices.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he agrees that CCA shouldn't operate the prison, but legislators should take a "hard look" at leasing it as opposed to spending money on new building projects. He said he's read a similar lease agreement between CCA and California, and found nothing "untoward or unfair."
"If this task force is successful, maybe we're going to need fewer prison beds in the future," he said, "and it would be really a wise move on our part to rent rather than to build."
Cornish said he will oppose any plan to expand the number of prison beds, other than for treatment, that doesn't factor in the Appleton plan. That would include funding in Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding proposal to bankroll the renovation of the Lino Lakes prison and the expansion of early release programs.