Star Tribune Editor: The state's prison system -- in focus

  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 6:52 PM

Star Tribune looks at implications of decisions.

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Cop-killer Timothy Eling is being paroled after serving 29 years on a life-sentence.

Photo: Peterson, Brian, Star Tribune

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The more than 9,300 men and women imprisoned in Minnesota generally don't get much sympathy from our readers. For many years, they (and the state corrections system) didn't get much coverage from the Star Tribune, either.

That changed about a year ago when we asked Paul McEnroe, one of our longtime investigative reporters, to take it on as part of his work.

In the last year, he has broken a number of stories. He was the first to report that the state had quietly decided to begin granting release to some repeated sex offenders, who had been held indefinitely in expensive treatment centers for years after they had served their sentences. He was also first to report on the landmark decision last year to grant parole to cop killer Timothy Eling.

Today's story, on the "million-dollar prisoner" phenomenon, is a key example of why we decided we needed to cover corrections more -- and why readers should care. Decisions regarding corrections, from how long to keep criminals behind bars to how well to treat them while they are there, have tremendous repercussions for public policy and taxpayers.

For decades, the public has championed stiffer penalties for crime. They wanted sex offenders locked up for good. They wanted stiffer penalties for repeat drunken drivers. Some states imposed life terms for three-time felons.

The result of tough sentencing laws, however, is that the government is responsible for the shelter, feeding and health care of all these prisoners. Over the last decade, the Corrections Department's medical budget has tripled to $68 million. As McEnroe reports, the prison population is also aging along with the country, exacerbating its health care needs.

Today's story, about the top-notch medical care granted a six-time drunken driver, is going to anger some readers, particularly those who can't afford world-class treatment. To some, it just doesn't seem fair -- but prisoners have a constitutional right to health care, long upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That raises some of the toughest questions facing society. Should the state release ill prisoners early, so it doesn't have to provide health care to criminals on the taxpayers' dime? What happens if a repeat drunken driver like James Vogel then drives drunk again, and slams into a young mother? There are no risk-free answers.

McEnroe's reporting on what is happening behind the walls of our prison systems will be published throughout the year, arming readers and decisionmakers with the information needed to make these incredibly difficult choices.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.

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