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Sentencing gets harsher
When the guidelines were created first in 1978, the Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s charge was to create sentences that were uniform, reasonable given the severity of the crime and equitable so that felons convicted of the same crimes would be given the same sentences. It still allowed judges the discretion to give less severe sentences than called for in the guidelines.
Sentences for drug sales were less severe than most violent crimes and didn’t require prison for first-time convictions. The punishment for possessing cocaine or marijuana was put at the same level as failing to pay child support.
Then, following the cocaine and crack epidemics of the 1980s, the state enacted much stiffer prison sentences for nearly all drug crimes. In 2004 and 2007, the commission released reports recognizing the variation in how judges followed the guidelines. In the 2007 report, the commission found that Minnesota’s drug laws were harsher than federal sentences, neighboring states, states with comparable populations as well as two of the most populous states, New York and Texas.
The commission suggested downgrading the penalties for serious drug crimes if approved by the Legislature. But after lobbying by state law enforcement groups, Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent a letter to the commission opposing the change.
“Minnesota should not reduce sentences for drug offenders and send the message that these crimes are not seriously harmful to our citizens,” Pawlenty wrote.
Minnesota has not made any significant changes to its drug sentencing laws since then. Now the presumed prison sentence for an addict caught with 25 grams of meth is the same as someone convicted of first-degree manslaughter or assault and many types of rape.
To Holly Evans-Wardlaw, the drug sentences are not tough enough. Open-air drug dealing in her neighborhood, Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul, is common, she said, and she has seen street dealers arrested only to be back on the street in a couple of weeks. The constant presence of dealers thwarts the community’s effort to revitalize the area.
What’s happening in Evans-Wardlaw’s neighborhood is one reason St. Paul Police Sgt. Paul Ford, who is also on the Guidelines Commission, said he opposes any efforts to reduce the recommended sentences for drug criminals. Lengthy prison sentences allow law enforcement to put leverage on offenders to plea bargain and have them turn in higher-up dealers, he said.
Other states have moved to ease their war on drugs. Twenty-four states have made changes to drug laws since 2009, including 15 that relaxed sentences, according to a 2013 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Minnesota’s prison population, while still one of the lowest in the country, now exceeds capacity, with drug offenders accounting for the largest percent of those incarcerated. The Department of Corrections said 300 to 310 jail beds at a cost of $55 per day are being rented to house prisoners. Minorities make up half of the drug offenders in prison, despite accounting for less than 20 percent of the state’s population.
In October, the commission held a roundtable meeting to discuss whether changes were needed to the drug guidelines. Many in attendance who worked in addiction treatment, probation, and corrections favored less punitive policies. Representatives of law enforcement said the guidelines worked.
The next month, a split commission voted against recommending any changes to the Legislature, likely scuttling any chance the issue would be taken up this year, said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, whose committee would oversee any legislation.
The commission chair, Isanti County Attorney Jeff Edblad, who voted against the changes, said more study was needed before the group could recommend lowering sentences for drug crimes.
Edblad acknowledged the high departure rate suggests there is room for improvement, such as a possibility of creating a sentence level for drug kingpins.
But he said the current guidelines are effective in dealing with drug crimes. “Minnesota has been a model for other states to follow,” he said.
Data Editor Glenn Howatt contributed to this report. Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626