A state lawmaker wants to stop what could become Minnesota’s most significant sentencing reform for drug offenders in decades, saying dangerous dealers should remain behind bars in an era of rising narcotics abuse.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission — an independent state board that sets recommendations for judges — voted last December in favor to drastically change how long some drug users and sellers spend in prison. The plan would also lower the state’s prison population by a projected 523 beds, helping to alleviate overcrowding, according to the commission.

The new guidelines will go into action Aug. 1 — but not if Rep. Tony Cornish can help it.

Cornish, R-Vernon Center, has drafted a bill calling for a full rejection of the plan. Cornish said it doesn’t make sense at a time when usage for drugs like methampethamine and heroin are rising, citing concerns from law enforcement and prosecutors.

“I think it sends the wrong message when you start talking about releasing people with serious felonies, like first-degree sale, out of prison early,” said Cornish. “I don’t necessarily go with the idea that these are addicts selling to feed their own habit.”

Cornish plans to present more on rising drug trends in Minnesota Wednesday at a legislative task force meeting designed to find solution to prison overcrowding.

Drugs laws ‘out of whack’

Cornish’s bill foreshadows what promises to be a heated debate over drug reform and how best to address prison overpopulation in Minnesota in the upcoming legislative session. Right now, Minnesota’s prison are overcrowded, and more than 500 inmates are being housed in county jails.

But Cornish said the reform would signal to other states that Minnesota is easy on drug crimes, and he would rather make more space for prisoners than let drug offenders out.

“You’ve got to balance public safety against other taxpayer expenses,” he said. “I think people wouldn’t mind spending a few more dollars if it means to keep drug offenders off the streets.”

Sen Ron. Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, strongly disagrees. He said Minnesota needs to re-examine how it punishes drug offenders, calling the current laws “out of whack” relative to other states.

“Even with the guidelines commission changes, we’re still outside the norm,” said Latz, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He said no research has shown that long-term incarceration effectively helps rehabilitate drug offenders. On the contrary, prisons act as “finishing schools for criminals,” said Latz, who plans to draft his own legislation to address overcrowding.

Under the current guidelines, offenders found guilty of first-degree drug sale — the highest-level charge — face a recommended sentence of seven to 13 years in prison, depending on criminal history. The amended guidelines would drop that down to about five to 10 years.

Offenders guilty of first-degree possession would face a likely sentence of four to nine years, down from seven to 13.

The amendment would also give judges more flexibility on sentencing so-called drug “kingpins” vs. those selling to support their own addiction. For example, if someone is busted running a highly sophisticated operation and caught with a firearm, he or she could face a longer sentence. On the flip side, an offender suffering from chemical dependency who’s been admitted into a treatment program could get less time or probation.

Right now, judges are frequently departing from the guidelines to give lesser sentences, according to guidelines commission data. These amendments would put recommendations more in line with how judges are already handing down penalties, which Latz points to as another reason why the reforms make sense.

“These are folks that are seeing individual cases on a daily basis, and they’re making professional judgments that our guidelines are overwrought,” he said.