The manufacture, distribution and use of illegal drugs are among the most overwhelming problems facing our state and nation. Minnesota’s prosecutors and law enforcement authorities are on the front line dealing with the issues caused by illegal drugs, and we routinely witness the harmful effects of drug abuse and drug trafficking on our society — violence; crime; child abuse and neglect; physical and mental ill health, and overdose deaths. Illegal drugs endanger citizens in urban, suburban and rural parts of our state, and they impose statewide costs to our health care, social service and criminal justice systems.
The Minnesota County Attorneys Association has worked tirelessly this legislative session to bring all stakeholders in the criminal justice system together. And we and are united in support of legislation that will reform the state’s drug sentencing laws and increase funding for the expansion of drug awareness education, chemical dependency and mental health evaluation, and chemical dependency/mental health treatment programs.
We believe that we need criminal laws and sentences that appropriately punish those who illegally supply, manufacture and sell drugs in our communities. We also recognize that treatment, counseling and drug courts are appropriate for those offenders who get caught in the system as a result of their own addiction to drugs. And we believe that Minnesota’s current drug sentencing laws fail to appropriately distinguish between these two groups: nonviolent drug offenders motivated by addiction and dangerous offenders motivated by greed. This failure has resulted in inconsistent sentencing practices across the state.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has proposed a number of changes to sentencing for drug crimes, but unfortunately they do not solve these problems. They would reduce sentences for the most serious drug offenses, while doing nothing to improve options for the lowest-level offenders. If the Legislature does not act to reform drug sentencing this session, the commission’s recommendations will go into effect on Aug. 1.
While we appreciate the work of the commission, and agree that changes need to be made, we feel that more must be done to help low-level offenders and to hold serious drug dealers accountable. The reform we need can be accomplished only through statutory change. Our proposal would guarantee that the most serious and dangerous drug dealers go to prison for significant amounts of time, more than under current law — no more breaks for the most serious and dangerous offenders. Our proposal also would allow for more flexibility in sentencing and less prison time for lower-level nonviolent drug offenders who primarily need treatment to help fight their addiction.
Because fewer people will be filling prison beds, our proposal will result in savings to the state. We believe that money saved from having fewer low-level drug offenders in prison should be reinvested in community programs aimed at prevention and treatment of chemical addiction, including the funding of drug courts.
The time is right for reform of our drug sentencing laws. By better distinguishing those nonviolent offenders motivated by addiction from dangerous offenders motivated by greed who wreak havoc on our communities, we can simultaneously advance public safety, protect our communities from the harms of drug abuse and conserve public resources.
This compromise, while not perfect, has the support of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the state public defender, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the U.S. Justice Action Network. The Minnesota Senate passed the bill earlier this week with bipartisan support; now is the time to gain the support of the entire Legislature.
Mark Ostrem is Olmsted County attorney and president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.