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Minnesota crime is at a 50-year low. So why are we imprisoning more people than ever?

photo of inmates at stillwater prison
Courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Corrections
Minnesota's rising prison population has already exceeded capacity.

In 2013, something remarkable happened in New Jersey.

After reforming its drug policies and rethinking its practice of throwing ex-cons back into state correctional facilities for parole violations, the state saw its prison population drop to 19,528, the lowest point in two decades, and a 28 percent decline from its late '90s peak.

That same year, in stark contrast, Minnesota's prison population hit one of the highest levels in its history.

Since 2000, a meth boom, harsher penalties for DWIs and other factors have made the state’s prison population jump from 6,200 to more than 9,450 as of January 2013, according to Department of Corrections data. And though Minnesota still has one of the smallest prison populations​ in the country, second only to Maine, the rate of incarceration — the number of inmates per 100,000 residents — went up 42 percent.

At the same time, the index crime rate plummeted 27 percent statewide to the lowest point since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. Index crime includes violent and property crimes, such as robbery, aggravated assault and burglary.

Minnesota’s crime rate vs. Minnesota’s incarceration rate
Even as the rate of major crimes committed in Minnesota has declined, the rate at which the state puts people in prison has risen.
Sources: Crime rate: Uniform Crime Reports; Incarceration rate: Minnesota Department of Corrections

The juxtaposition of these two statistics bucks national trends, according to a recent study by The Brennan Center for Justice. Though crime fell across the country, imprisonment rates dropped in 15 states, while another 23 saw increases of less than 20 percent. The growth in Minnesota's prison population represents the second sharpest rise in the country.

For taxpayers, it’s an expensive problem. It costs more than $30,000 in Minnesota to house one inmate per year, according to the Department of Corrections. And the price could soon go up.

As a consequence of the unprecedented growth in its prison population, Minnesota is running out of places to put its inmates. In order to manage overcrowding, the prison system wants to expand its Rush City facility to accommodate 500 more beds. That means the Department of Corrections will ask legislators for $85 million in next year’s bonding bill to fund the project.

One way or another, lawmakers are going to have to address Minnesota’s rising prison population, says Mark Osler, University of St. Thomas law school professor and retired assistant U.S. Attorney.

“If nobody pays attention to it, and they just keep overcrowding the prisons, eventually there will be a federal lawsuit,” says Osler. “Then people will start to pay attention, and then the Legislature will start to do its job.”

A hardened philosophy

Historically, Minnesota’s corrections system has been known for two things: a low prisoner population and a progressive philosophy toward punishing criminals — a notion that offenders can be rehabilitated.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when states like California were deluging their prisons through tough-on-crime sentencing policies, such as controversial three-strikes-you're-out laws, Minnesota stayed the course. As a 1999 report by former corrections commissioner Orville B. Pung would note, even as other states moved to more punitive-minded sentencing practices, Minnesota had “never really deviated from its early hope that the operation of prisons would result in a safer society by making prisoners better people.”

The state was among the first to adopt sentencing guidelines, a roadmap to help judges find the appropriate punishment for offenders. It also instituted a commission tasked with developing the guidelines and studying felony sentencing data to make sure Minnesota’s prisoner population didn’t exceed capacity and lead to overcrowding.

In 1981, around the time those guidelines went into effect, state prisons housed a mere 1,892 people. By the end of the decade, the population had grown to slightly more than 3,000, still far below the national average.

By 2000, however, Minnesota’s incarcerated population almost doubled from the decade prior. As of January 2015, it’s lingering at about 9,950.

Most of that growth took place in the first five years of the millennium: In that time, the number of prisoners per 100,000 Minnesotans jumped from 124 to 166, or 34 percent. The rate peaked in 2009, at 184, and declined slightly the next two years before gradually growing again in 2013.

In comparison, California and New York, two of the country’s largest corrections systems, have seen some of the most significant prisoner declines in the United States. Following a federal court order to ease massive overcrowding, California cut its incarceration rate by 23 percent from 2009 to 2013. New York reduced its rate by about 27 percent from 2000 to 2013.

Some wonder if the enhanced penalties and other new laws driving the incarceration rate signal a change of values from the hope described by Pung.

“I’m not seeing anywhere near the same reform spirit that we had 30 to 40 years ago,” says David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “I think we’re making it easier for people to get in prison.”

Minnesota an outlier
When the Brennan Center for Justice compared changes in property and violent crime rates to incarceration rates in all 50 states from 2000 to 2013, Minnesota stood out for its big jump. (Only one state was worse: West Virginia's increase was too high to fit in the charts below.)
scatterplot of change in property crime rate vs. change incarceration rate by state  from 2000 to 2013
scatterplot of change in violent crime rate vs. change incarceration rate by state  from 2000 to 2013

The war on drugs, drunks

Part of the incarceration rise can be explained by an increase in the number of criminal statutes on the books. Minnesota Justice Paul H. Anderson recently illustrated the magnitude of this in a speech to William Mitchell Law Review: In 1965, Minnesota’s criminal code was 32 pages long, Anderson said. In 2013 it was 228. If the code continues to grow at that pace, it will hit 1,770 pages 50 years from now.

“I can’t remember a legislative session where the Legislature didn’t create new crimes and enhanced penalties,” says Teresa Nelson, legal director for the Minnesota chapter of American Civil Liberties Union. “So when you have longer sentences, you’re going to have more people in prison.”

In 2001, the Legislature passed a law creating felony-level DWI. In 2003, Minnesota courts sent 67 people to prison for driving under the influence. By 2005, that number had grown to 227. It peaked in 2008 at 323. Lawmakers also passed a series of other tough-on-crime measures around this time, increasing penalties for offenses like furtherance of terrorism, domestic strangulation and criminal sexual conduct.

Then there was the war on drugs. From 2000 to 2005, the number of Minnesotans in prison for drug offenses more than doubled to 2,178. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the state’s entire prison population circa 1981. As of 2013, drug offenders still accounted for about 1,633 of the inmate population.

The Legislature passed several new laws designed to crack down on illicit substances in the late '90s and early-to-mid 2000s, including creating a felony offense for attempt to make meth and a law treating meth the same as heroin. Today, half those in prison for drug offenses are there for meth.

Contrary to Minnesota’s reputation for progressive policymaking, the state is heavy-handed when it comes to the way it punishes users and sellers of drugs. It has considerably harsher penalties for drug crimes in comparison to other Midwest states, and so far attempts to reform those laws have all fallen flat, says Richard Frase, criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota. “Every time that that’s proposed, the police and the prosecutors just line up and say ‘no, no, no — you can’t change a thing.’ "

Prison administrators trumpet Minnesota’s wide use of probation and supervised release as a successful alternative to putting criminals behind bars. But for many offenders, these programs become winding roads looping right back into a prison cell. About 60 percent of prison sentences come from violations of probation or supervised release, according to statistics provided by the DOC.

This is a problem, says Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. In many of these cases, courts are throwing offenders in prison for violations like missing appointments or failing a drug test, and not for committing new crimes. “That’s a lot of money to pay for someone who has not recommitted an offense, or committed a new offense, to be incarcerated,” says Levy-Pounds.

For all the expenses associated with imprisoning more Minnesotans, it doesn’t appear to be paying off. According to the Brennan Center, incarceration isn’t responsible for driving down crime. The study attributes the national decline to factors such as decreased alcohol consumption, growth of income and the introduction of advanced statistic-based crime-fighting tactics.

“Incarceration’s impact on crime in the last 15 years has been almost zero,” says study author Lauren-Brooke Eisen.

No easy fix

It’s impossible to predict with any certainty where Minnesota’s imprisonment rate will be 10 years from now.

The state is counting on the slow growth of recent years to continue, rather than seeing another spike like in the early 2000s. The Department of Corrections and sentencing commission forecast the population will increase by 1,000 from 2014 to 2024. That number also accounts for lengths of inmate sentences and the anticipated impact of recent law changes. Yet there are factors that can’t be foreseen, and it’s anyone’s guess what new laws or enhanced penalties the Legislature will create over the next decade.

Fixing the problems facing prisons in Minnesota — and across the country — is no simple task.

“There’s no one agency or person who’s at fault,” says Eisen.

For now, the DOC has contracted with 18 county jails across the state to manage its roughly 500 overflow prisoners, which Deputy Commissioner Terry Carlson acknowledges isn’t an ideal long-term solution. Jails don’t have the same drug treatment, medical and other programming as prisons. They’re also built to be holding facilities, not rehabilitation centers.

A better solution, says Carlson, is the department’s “Challenge Incarceration Program,” which grants early release for eligible offenders who complete a rigorous 18 months of chemical dependency treatment and other courses, military-style boot camp and intensive community supervision. So far, the program has been a success, and the DOC has seen a low rate of recidivism from the inmates who go through it, says Carlson. Right now, it holds about 260 inmates, but the department is planning to expand it next year to 45 more.

Even with more prisoners, Carlson says the values driving how Minnesota punishes its criminals have not dramatically changed, evident by Minnesota's still-low incarceration rate relative to most other states. “I don’t think there’s been a huge shift in thinking about community corrections and the value of trying to keep people in their communities in probation versus coming to prison," she says.

But the numbers don't lie. And with more inmates comes a higher demand for resources, which means the DOC must find ways to adapt. “And then,” says Carlson, “we have to look for places to put these offenders, and we have to ask for money.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/24/2015 - 09:14 am.

    Maybe because

    all the crooks who normally commit the crimes are now in prison? I don’t know, just a wild guess.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/24/2015 - 12:17 pm.

      Maybe you should read articles before commenting

      Here’s a line that may have helped you: “Incarceration’s impact on crime in the last 15 years has been almost zero,” says study author Lauren-Brooke Eisen.
      Of course that’s someone who has studied the issue and not a verbose but often inaccurate commenter on a blog so you probably won’t believe it.

  2. Submitted by Scot Wilcoxon on 06/24/2015 - 09:31 am.


    Uh… you don’t think that maybe the crime rate has dropped because more criminals have been locked up?

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/24/2015 - 12:18 pm.

      Another non reader weighs in

      From the article: “Incarceration’s impact on crime in the last 15 years has been almost zero,” says study author Lauren-Brooke Eisen. Look it up. Using science instead of nonsense might actually save us a few bucks.

  3. Submitted by Robert Owen on 06/24/2015 - 10:47 am.

    It’s called the Butterfield Effect.

  4. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 06/24/2015 - 10:54 am.

    Imprisonment is capacity driven

    What Minnesota understood in the early 1980s when it adoped sentencing guidelines and invested in community corrections programs is that the incarceration rate has no relationship whatsoever to crime rates; it is capacity driven: you will fill the prison beds you have. The Legislature wisely at that time decided to not build new beds and to adjust sentencing guidelines accordingly.

    When state mental hospitals (in Moose Lake, Fairbault, for example) closed, they were converted into prisons, as much to satisfy the employment needs of persons living in those community as any criminal justice need. Longer sentences for sex crimes and drugs were the public rationale and fit in nicely with the political need to have more prison beds.

    The only way to stabilize or reduce incarceration rates is to close prisons.

  5. Submitted by Kevin Vick on 06/24/2015 - 12:11 pm.

    Could it be…..

    ….. that incarcerating criminals is a deterrent?

  6. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 06/24/2015 - 01:51 pm.

    Now we need Briana

    DWIs are one thing, and I’m glad we’re cracking down there. But why hasn’t the legislature been able to make common sense policies on drug laws? I seem to recall Pawlenty posing on “cracking down on crime…”

  7. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 06/24/2015 - 02:16 pm.

    No it can’t

    because, if it did, states with high incarceration rates should have low crime rates, and vice versa. In fact, there is no relationship between crime rates and incarceration rates.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/24/2015 - 02:24 pm.

    Use of prison for punishment

    Talking about crime and detention rates in general really is not useful. What is useful is talking about individual crimes and the consequences people face for them.

    I will use drunk driving as an example. It wasn’t so long ago that there was much higher levels of drunk driving, but it wasn’t an enforcement priority – particularly not with escalating punishment for repeat offenders.

    If a drunk driver is caught a first time and they didn’t have an accident that severely injured or killed someone, they deserve a penalty, but really need to be evaluated for being an alcoholic and if found to be one, strongly encouraged to go into treatment. If they complete treatment and remain sober, they may be able to defer some of the punishment.

    Once a person becomes a multiple offender, they need to face higher consequences. I am personally for strong penalties that don’t involve jail time. The first would be that they are issued a new driver’s license with DUI indicated. For me, the best remedy is to make it illegal for them to drink alcohol, which means that everyone who purchases alcohol is required to present an ID (regardless of age) and if the DUI is present, they will not be served. Perhaps if they have no further violations, the DUI gets removed from the license after a reasonable period (e.g. 3-5 years).

    Also, once their drivers license is reissued, it is on a qualified basis. If they are caught driving after drinking any amount of alcohol, they will face a big penalty – permanent loss of license and/or large financial penalty. If we alway offer treatment as an option, but get tougher with the penalties other than jail time, we will deter a lot more people from being problems in the first place.

    However, for the high number repeat offender (probably 4+ times), they are a public safety hazard and need to be prevented from driving. Jail is one way to do that – or much closer monitoring than is generally being considered today.

    • Submitted by Alan Muller on 06/24/2015 - 03:38 pm.

      I like this comment

      because it proposes some reasonable solutions.

      The story is important, but if one looks at each segment of the prison industry in isolation, the situation looks inevitable. I don’t believe that it is. I would like to know how many prisoners in Minnesota are political prisoners–activists, targeted young ethnic males, etc. I expect that there are some people whom it is beneficial to society to lock up, but it does not seem that this is a high percentage of the prison population.

  9. Submitted by John Musielewicz on 06/24/2015 - 05:03 pm.

    Inaccuracy of statistics.

    Dear friends, sorry I just had to comment after reading the title, then the article, and comments.

    Notice the period in the statistic from 1996 to 2002. That means a change in the general population as far as I know. The general population of Minnesota. Not the general populations of criminals.

    Crime itself does not change, what happens is the population changes, there are fewer people reporting crime.

    For some reason, people have slowly stopped reporting criminal activity, and it probably is a general trend where after the bubble burst, those that were trying to ‘make it’ here moved away. So with a smaller general population there are fewer people for criminals to attack.

    With smaller populations it does make it more difficult to collect information like stats, people get close mouthed. Just the way it is.

    Other things happen like locals try to drive up prices. Makes the locals poor beggars in anyone’s opinion, and stats rarely cover poor begger locals.

    Anyone got a horse to give me? I have been offering cash but poor beggars don’t need that!


  10. Submitted by John Egekrout on 06/25/2015 - 10:20 am.

    we love it

    We LOVE putting people in jail. We LOVE “holding them accountable.” We love punishing people. We just don’t like to admit it.

  11. Submitted by joe smith on 06/25/2015 - 04:49 pm.

    People don’t want to be held accountable, bad folks like to brutalize people, they deserve to be in jail. Some just don’t want to admit it.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 06/25/2015 - 11:22 pm.

      Bad folks like to brutalize people

      Umm I don’t recall the article being focused on the conservative ideological mindset, but hey if you’re all OK with your suggestion, I’m game.

  12. Submitted by John Foote on 07/01/2015 - 03:54 pm.

    It is called the Butterfield Effect. It has a name because it happens so often to ideologues who are so blinded by their ideology they can’t see the answer right in front of them.

    In this case, has it occurred to Mr. Mannix that the reason the crime is low is that the incarceration rate is up? In fact, that is precisely the correlation in almost every state in the country over the past 25 years after we all suffered through an epidemic of crime in our communities for decades as ideologues like Mr.Mannix (just one generation earlier) opined that crime was caused by poverty, race, etc. Turns out there was no real evidence to prove that and after 25 years of policies based upon that failed ideology the crime rates by the 1980;s were at record levels. Now that they are low and incarceration is higher, they want to go back and plow the old ground, at our expense.

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