Minnesota criminal justice leaders hailed a compromise to overhaul drug laws Friday as a long-overdue, historic moment for the state that could help curb prison overcrowding.
Standing side by side, prosecutors, cops and defense attorneys said the deal came from exhaustive and at-times contentious debate, with the final product representing a rare compromise among groups more accustomed to opposing each other on policy issues.
“Nobody’s happy with this bill,” said state public defender Bill Ward. “Which means it’s a great compromise bill.”
But the hard work isn’t over. With three weeks to go in the legislative session, supporters will have to move quickly to introduce bills in the House and Senate and push them to the finish line.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who will carry the bill in his chamber, expressed optimism that with strong community and bipartisan support, the measure will go the distance. “I think the odds are very, very good,” Latz said.
Noticeably missing from the news conference, however, was Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who will push the bill in the House. Reached for comment afterward, Cornish sounded less than enthused, saying he didn’t attend because he “just didn’t feel any reason to celebrate.”
Cornish said he believes the compromise is better than an earlier drug reform plan passed by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which will go into effect if the Legislature can’t pass the deal, so he will support it. But he prefers Minnesota’s current drug laws, citing a recent spike in some substance-related crimes.
Cornish said he could foresee some challenges in agreeing on certain details, such as where money saved from the bill will go. But he ultimately thinks it will get the needed votes in the House.
“I’ll support it and not whine about it and get it through the Legislature,” he said.
Drug laws ‘out of whack’
If the measure passes, it would be one of the most significant reforms to Minnesota’s criminal justice system in about three decades, and accomplish something legislators and criminal justice experts have debated for years.
“I truly believe that we have made possible what many people for decades thought would be impossible,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
Backers emphasized that the deal will prioritize cracking down on “kingpin” drug dealers, while also helping severe addicts get treatment instead of going to prison. Brock Hunter, president of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said this would put Minnesota’s drug penalties more in line with those of other states.
“Minnesota drug sentencing laws have been out whack with the rest of the country for many, many years,” Hunter said. “And, as a result, over the past generation, thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders have been sent to prison rather than receiving the help they needed for their addiction — in many cases, coming out of prison with greater problems and a greater threat to public safety than when they went in.”
By diverting some into treatment, the measure would free up more than 600 prison beds over time, Latz said. That would help alleviate overcrowding in the state’s corrections system. However, it likely wouldn’t be enough to solve the problem entirely, given that the Department of Corrections projects it will be 1,300 inmates over capacity by 2022.
Latz also said he wants to take the money saved on imprisoning fewer people and put it toward drug treatment and other rehabilitative services.
Among the most dramatic changes in the proposal would be reducing the recommended prison sentence for first-degree sale and possession of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine from seven years to slightly more than five years.
The proposal would raise the minimum weight to qualify for high-level charges for meth and cocaine. For instance, a first-degree sale would be redefined as 17 grams — up from the current 10 grams.
However, the law would give harsher penalties for offenders also arrested with certain “aggravating factors,” such as being caught with a firearm, selling across state lines or dealing to benefit a gang.
The deal would drop the sentence for second-degree drug sale from four years in prison to four years on probation for heroin, cocaine and meth.
It would broaden the scope of drug offenders eligible for an early release program that allows well-behaved inmates who complete a rigorous boot-camp program to get out of prison early.
It also would crack down on offenders caught with large quantities of marijuana. Under the current law, a first-degree charge is defined as selling 50 kilograms or possessing 100 kilograms. Those would both be cut in half, and second-degree charges would similarly change.
Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday he has been briefed on the deal. Though he didn’t know every detail, he said he would sign a bill if all parties involved came to an agreement.
New poll shows support
According to a recent study released by the U.S. Justice Action Network, Minnesotans overwhelmingly support some type of criminal justice reform.
The survey, conducted by national polling organization the Tarrance Group, reported that 83 percent of respondents favored overhauling sentencing to create tougher mandatory penalties for higher-level drug offenders, while pushing treatment for first-time and lower-level offenders.
Eighty-five percent wanted stiffer penalties for repeat offenders caught with a gun or dealing to benefit a gang, and 84 percent supported reinvesting funds saved from keeping low-level users out of prison into prevention and treatment programs.