An emotional crowd jammed a hearing Wednesday as state leaders tried sorting through a proposal to overhaul Minnesota’s drug sentencing guidelines to decrease prison time and better distinguish addicts from potentially violent drug dealers.
Randy Anderson, a three-time felon in his 10th year of recovery from cocaine addiction, said the assumption that all dealers are dangerous is ludicrous. At the height of his addiction, he was using 10 to 14 grams a day and dealing drugs just to support his habit. When the police came for him, he was charged with possessing more than 1,000 grams of cocaine. While desperately addicted, he says he was never violent.
“I didn’t burglarize, I didn’t assault anyone, hell, I even paid my taxes,” said Anderson, who wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Felon.”
Nearly three dozen people, from faith leaders and recovering addicts to police officers, addressed the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to offer two distinct viewpoints. Anderson and other supporters of the changes say the state’s current sentencing laws are draconian and tearing apart families, as relatively harmless drug users are locked up for too long. They say that drug addiction should be addressed with treatment — not imprisonment, particularly at the height of racial disparities in drug convictions. Law enforcement officials said that while they support an overhaul for low-level offenders, the proposed changes will enable high-level and often violent drug dealers to continue their trade with reduced risk of spending significant time behind bars.
Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and committee chairman Christopher Dietzen said the proposal is a compromise between the two sides. While it lowers the amount of prison time for the most serious drug dealers, it is also sets more lenient sentences for those convicted of possession.
The changes would also allow judges more latitude to increase sentences for major drug dealers, but also include more leniency in some cases to enable addicts to enter treatment rather than prison. The commission will vote on the proposed changes Dec. 30. 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.
Anderson, the felon, said he was lucky because he was offered treatment. But, he said, “I was sentenced to 87 months in prison for having a disease. What purpose does an additional five or six years serve?”
Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, shared law enforcement’s concerns about loosening the penalties for major drug offenses.
“At a time when the heroin trade is thriving in our communities, it is just not right to be reducing the sentence for anyone in the distribution chain and who is bringing this poison into our communities,” Small said.
Charles Strack, a Little Falls police detective and member of the Central Minnesota Violent Offender Task Force, held up a baggie filled with brown sugar to represent 6 ounces of heroin, a significant amount of the drug. If authorities decided to charge him with drug possession rather than distribution to ensure his cooperation, he could likely avoid prison time. It is those cases — the kingpins — that they’re worried about.
“There’s a myth that low-end marijuana users are going to prison,” Strack said. “The part that no one tells you is that they’re going because they’re violating their probationary conditions.”
Before the hearing, Nathaniel Doehling, director of TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice4All Program, said that at the height of disparities in the criminal justice system, the time is ripe for change.
“I myself have been incarcerated in the past and been labeled a thug, a criminal, a convict, instead of a leader, a human, a father, just being a person who made a mistake,” he said, adding that people of color are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of whites. “We’re the second worst state in the nation for black people to live in. The chains of Jim Crow have not left, they’ve just changed.”
Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officer's Association said incarceration isn’t just about being punitive — it is about public safety.
“Longer incarceration of people is designed for who those we are afraid of, not just mad at,” he said.
As the meeting closed, the Rev. Grant Stevensen asked the six committee members present — all white — to “restore a moment of sanity” with the proposed reforms, and to consider why people of color are incarcerated so much more often than whites.
“Take a look at why that might be happening,” he said. “The television cameras are gone now. We could have a holy moment of introspection.”