Longer prison terms for major drug dealers were offered as one fix to the widespread disparities in Minnesota's drug sentencing, while easing penalties for low-level drug offenses appeared to have less support, legislators said Wednesday.

A legislative hearing Wednesday was prompted by a Star Tribune story Sunday, which reported that state judges are routinely rejecting guidelines that are supposed to make drug sentencing uniform and equitable. The difference between getting prison or probation for the same drug crime often comes down to which county offenders live in or which judge does the sentencing.

Kelly Mitchell, the executive director of the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, said Minnesota's punishment for the most serious drug crimes were harsher than many other states and also made no distinction between a relatively small amount of drugs and an unlimited amount.

Mitchell told the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee that the disparity in the sentencing was "an indicator that something is wrong somewhere."

The head of the committee, Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said she expected several bills to be introduced to fix the problem during this session and said "the consensus" would likely be on a proposal to make stiffer penalties for drug kingpins.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said during the hearing that he already tried to work on such a bill but also wanted to reduce the recommended prison sentences for lower-level drug offenders. He said he was thwarted by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

"Why did you oppose the bill?" Paymar asked Dakota County Chief Deputy Attorney Phil Prokopowicz, who was testifying for the association.

Prokopowicz said he was aware of no such proposal. He told the committee that he was open to such a change, "provided we still have the tools to get the most dangerous and entrepreneurial offenders."

Paymar said the Department of Corrections recently revealed that it underestimated its projected prison population by about 8 percent. While Minnesota has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, it still exceeds capacity, with drug offenders accounting for the largest growth in population.

Last year the Sentencing Guidelines Commission rejected a proposal that would have reduced prison recommendations for some drug offenders.

"I'm so frustrated with the Sentencing Guidelines Commission," Paymar said. "This has become a political football."

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626