State leaders have signed off on a plan, years in the making, to reduce the time spent behind bars for first-time drug offenders and better distinguish addicts from potentially violent drug dealers.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission voted 7-3 to overhaul the state’s drug sentencing guidelines, reducing recommended prison sentences for first-time offenders convicted of first-degree drug possession from seven to four years, and sentences for first-degree drug sale from seven to five years.

The commission also changed presumptive prison sentences in second-degree sale and possession cases to probation.

Unless the Legislature intervenes to stop or otherwise alter the changes, they will take effect in August. Analysts say that the changes could save 523 prison beds in Minnesota by 2028.

While the changes decrease the amount of prison time for the most serious drug dealers — a source of contention among some members — they also set more lenient sentences for those convicted of possession.

The key, proponents of the changes said, is to enable treatment for addicts rather than let them languish behind bars.

The changes also promote a uniform standard across Minnesota, where drug cases successfully prosecuted outstate often conclude with longer prison sentences than those in the metro area.

‘Truth in sentencing’

Some commission members, echoing the concerns of law enforcement officials, said that reducing sentences for dangerous drug dealers is counterintuitive.

“I can’t, in good conscience, support the reduction of sentences for drug dealers,” said commission member Paul Ford, a sergeant with the St. Paul police who moved to strip the provision from the changes. “I think this is a mistake, it sends the wrong message to the community and it sends the wrong message to criminals.”

Ford added that children of two of his colleagues have died from heroin overdoes. “I can’t go back and say I did what’s best for children,” he said.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Christopher Dietzen, the commission’s chair, said that changing advised prison sentences for first-degree drug sale is not so much a reduction as it is an adjustment. He said that judges in the past decade have handed down sentences well below the recommended seven years.

“I think it’s hard for me in terms of fairness to look at the sentence and say we’re going to keep it at 86 months, when we all know sitting around this table that first-time drug dealers are not getting 86 months, they’re getting 65 months. It’s truth in sentencing,” Dietzen said.

Rejecting lighter sentences for drug dealers, he added, “cuts against our purposes in trying to positively affect uniformity in sentencing.”

The vote, taken in a sparsely filled meeting room, came one week after a jammed hearing that featured emotional statements from 33 witnesses ranging from recovering drug addicts to police officers.

Dietzen deflected criticism that the reforms were pushed through too quickly, saying that they were years in the making and that they were the commission’s to make after a pair of House and Senate bills stalled last year.

“When the Legislature failed to act, the commission more earnestly discussed the topic and we determined some action was necessary and we had a public hearing to give people a voice,” Dietzen said. “It seems to me we heard arguments that were not new, but people came in and put flesh to the arguments we’d been hearing, so I don’t see a rush to judgment.”

In other action

Shortly after the vote, the commission also debated potential reforms to be recommended to the Legislature.

A proposal to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders was tabled after a brief debate, while a proposal to remove fifth-degree drug possession as a prior offense when imposing mandatory minimums failed.

The board agreed to recommend that fifth-degree drug possession involving a trace amount of drugs be reduced from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will take up the recommended measures when the Legislature reconvenes in March. In the meantime, advocates for reform called the changes a step in the right direction.

“I think there’s more to be done, but certainly this is a good start,” said Joshua Esmay, director of public policy and advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice and co-chair of the state’s Second Chance Coalition.

“It reduces the unnecessary severity of our state’s drug laws, brings them in line with what other states and the federal system are doing, and is a necessary step given the current prison overcrowding situation.”