State judges are routinely rejecting guidelines that are supposed to make drug sentencing uniform and equitable statewide, according to a Star Tribune analysis of more than 21,000 drug convictions in Minnesota from 2007 to 2012.
Convicted of first-degree drug possession and sales, Earnest Earl Boyd faced more than 10 years in prison when he walked into a Hennepin County courtroom. He got less than a year in the workhouse.
That same day — Jan. 5, 2012 — judges elsewhere in the state did not show the same leniency to 13 other people convicted of lesser drug crimes. One of them, Christina Wevley, was sentenced in Olmsted County to nearly three years in prison for possessing about $260 worth of cocaine.
State judges are routinely rejecting guidelines that are supposed to make drug sentencing uniform and equitable statewide, according to a Star Tribune analysis of more than 21,000 drug convictions in Minnesota from 2007 to 2012. The difference between getting prison or probation for the same drug crime often comes down to which county offenders live in, or which judge does the sentencing.
In the 8th Judicial District in western Minnesota, offenders convicted of the most serious drug crimes face a 77 percent chance of getting the full prison sentence. In Hennepin County, only 27 percent get the toughest penalty, according to the Star Tribune analysis.
Judges who frequently depart from the recommended prison sentences say those guidelines often punish low-level drug offenders too severely, filling up state prisons with addicts who would be better off receiving treatment.
“The guidelines were often disproportionate to the harm being caused to the community by the offense,” said Judge H. Peter Albrecht, who retired from the Hennepin district in 2009 but still presides over cases statewide. Albrecht has one of the highest “departure” rates in the state. “To strictly follow the guidelines without considering other factors is to put our humanity aside.”
Albrecht and others advocate for changes in the recommended drug sentences, which they say are among some of the toughest in the nation and make no distinction between high-level dealers and addicts. The lowest state sentence for being caught selling 10 grams of cocaine — about three sugar packets — is the same as for selling an unlimited amount.
Some judges have never gone below the state’s recommended sentences, while others have done it in at least half their cases, the Star Tribune analysis shows. Judge Robert Tiffany, who serves in Hubbard County in northern Minnesota, deviated only twice from the recommended sentence in the 64 drug cases he has handled from 2007 through 2012, and that was to give stiffer punishments.
Many state law enforcement groups and county attorneys have long lobbied to keep the guidelines as they are. Dakota County Chief Deputy Attorney Phil Prokopowicz said the recommended sentences protect the public and give the authority to judges to distinguish which drug offenders should go to prison and which ones need treatment.
Prokopowicz said the variation in departures among judges is likely due to workload, the nature of the cases in one district vs. another and the personal views of some judges.
“Is it fair? Is it a perfect system? No,” Prokopowicz said. “It’s a good system though. You find that the vast majority of our judges are seriously conscientious.”
Two cases, different outcomes
Tipped off by an informant, police were watching Boyd in July 2009 when he took an orange-colored object from an overgrown lot in north Minneapolis, according to the criminal complaint. When police moved in, he threw an orange bag that contained more than 55 grams of cocaine.
Boyd, who could not be reached for comment for this story, had previously been charged or convicted of six drug crimes as well as evading police and trespassing, records show. His criminal record and the first-degree drug crimes meant a presumed sentence of 122 months. But Judge Marilyn J. Kaman gave Boyd 275 days in the county workhouse, with credit for 213 days served, and five years probation, because Boyd “had the potential for becoming rehabilitated,” records show.
Wevley, the woman sentenced on the same day as Boyd, had two prior convictions in 2008 for selling marijuana in a public housing zone and endangering her children with pot sales. In 2009, a man broke into her apartment and raped her, threatening to kill her and her children if she screamed. Her attacker was sentenced to four years in prison in May 2010.
In September 2010, Wevley was under surveillance when she sold about 6 grams of cocaine in Rochester to her ex-boyfriend, who also had a history of drug crimes and served time in prison for an assault conviction.
At sentencing, Wevley asked for leniency after telling the court she sold the drugs because she was worried about what the ex-boyfriend might do to her if she didn’t. Judge Jodi Williamson gave her the recommended time, 34 months, for a third-degree drug crime. In an interview, Wevley pointed out that it was only a year less than the sentence for the man who raped her.
Now on probation, Wevley acknowledged that she should have been punished for the crime, but that prison was too severe.
“I wasn’t even able to say goodbye to my kids,” she said. “Knowing I was the only provider for my children, I don’t think they should have been taken away from me.”