Crime is down in Minnesota, but more people are getting locked up.
In an era of policies geared toward reducing prison populations, Minnesota has bucked national trends by incarcerating more people, according a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which shows how 35 states simultaneously cut crime and prison rates.
In contrast to Minnesota, the prison rate nationwide dropped 11 percent, according to the study, which looked at data from 2008 to 2016.
“There is a sea change on the way across the country in attitudes and policies toward crime and punishment,” said Adam Gelb, director for Pew and study co-author. “Policymakers across the political spectrum are realizing that building more and more prisons is not the best path to public safety. There are alternatives that work better and cost less.”
Wisconsin decreased its prison rate by 26 percent. Alaska’s rate dropped 35 percent.
Minnesota’s crime rate dropped 24 percent, but the incarceration rate increased 1 percent, making it among only a dozen states that saw prison populations grow in the eight-year period, according to the study.
Why exactly Minnesota has not tracked with the majority of the nation is an open question.
A longer view of the state’s prison populations shows the growth dates back much further than the period studied by Pew. The population rate — calculated per 100,000 people — has been on the rise for decades, spiking about 150 percent from the early 1990s, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections data. Nearly 40 percent of that jump came from 2000 to 2008.
A major factor has been a 55 percent increase in felony charges across the state, driven by tough-on-crime laws coming down from the Legislature, according to Kelly Lyn Mitchell and Richard Frase, who have been studying this trend at the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice.
In 2001, for example, lawmakers created a felony-level DWI charge, which now accounts for nearly 700 people in Minnesota prisons, according to estimates from the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission. New mandatory-minimum sentences for people convicted of sexual assault added almost 600. Increasing penalties for felons caught illegally possessing firearms led to about 400 more.
Mitchell and Frase’s research, which will soon be published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter, also points to the high number of Minnesotans on probation or post-prison supervised release who often end up back in prison after violating their release terms. More people are coming to Minnesota courtrooms with thicker criminal histories than in the past, which can contribute to harsher penalties, said Frase, co-director for Robina.
Frase suggested caution on drawing a relationship between sending more people to prison and a crime reduction, noting any correlation between the two is riddled with caveats.
He also notes that, even after years of growth, Minnesota’s prison population rates are among the lowest in the nation. “We’re still doing pretty well,” he said. “In spite of those caseload increases, we’re holding to our pattern of low incarceration rates.”
As for who gets locked up: Minnesota is among the worst in the country for incarcerating people of color at disproportionate rates, according to a 2016 study from the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project.
The study found Hispanics go to prison in Minnesota at a rate 2 ½ times higher than whites. Blacks go to prison at a rate 11 times higher than whites.
There’s no telling what the future of incarceration will look like for Minnesota or the rest of the country, but in the past year, the election of President Donald Trump has altered the criminal justice narrative coming out of Washington.
Despite ample evidence of falling crime rates, Trump’s administration has continued to raise alarm over a period of “American carnage” that must be remedied by returning to law-and-order policies. While Obama vowed to shine a light on mass incarceration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has promised to restart the war on drugs.
Despite this sharp turn from the White House, the Pew’s Gelb said he’s not convinced the nation is heading back into a renewed era of soaring incarceration rates.
“The tone in Washington is definitely casting a cloud over the criminal justice reform movement, but so far state and local leaders are plowing ahead with their efforts to improve the system,” he said.
One reason he’s optimistic: prison is expensive.
Minnesota taxpayers spend $41,000 per inmate every year, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“States have to balance their budgets,” Gelb said. “So they are acutely aware of the trade-offs.”