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Minnesota’s prison overpopulation problem tied to harsher penalties for drunk driving, drugs

A 2001 law creating a felony-level offense for DWI had the biggest impact, according to data released Wednesday by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

Inmates in the yard of Rush City correctional facility, which the Department of Corrections wants to expand to accommodate more prisoners.
Minnesota Department of Corrections

Harsher penalties passed by the Legislature for crimes like drunk driving, drug possession and sex offenses contributed significantly to the incarceration boom that’s pushed Minnesota’s prison population over capacity, according to data given to lawmakers Wednesday.

 A 2001 law creating a felony-level DWI charge for certain offenders with histories of driving under impairment had the biggest impact, requiring 683 beds in Minnesota prisons, according to the data collected by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which studies trends and develops uniform punishment guidelines for criminal offenses. Measures enhancing penalties for assault, stalking and other violations, passed in 2006 and 2007, created the need for another 411 beds.

Nate Reitz, executive director of the commission, presented these data to a new task force designed to address Minnesota’s prison overpopulation problem in advance of the 2016 legislative session. 

As MinnPost first reported in June, from 2000 to 2013, the state’s prison population jumped from 6,200 to more than 9,450. Calculated as a rate — the number of inmates per 100,000 resident  — that’s a 42 percent increase.

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 Collectively, about a dozen of these penalty enhancements have taken up almost 3,000 beds — just about the state’s entire prison population circa 1990. Here are the estimates Reitz brought to the task force yesterday (based on 2014 inmate data unless otherwise noted):

Year(s) Passed Law ChangeEstimated Prison Impact
1992; 97-98Drugs: Dropped weight threshold for 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-degree offenses for cocaine, heroin and meth575 Beds
1998Firearms: Increased minimum for possession by crime of violence/drug felon from 1.5 years to 5 years403 Beds
2000Predatory Offender Registration Violation: Felony and mandatory prison sentence of 1 year; 2 years for subsequent234 Beds
2000; 2002Criminal Sexual Conduct: Mandatory minimum of 12 years for 1st degree, 7.5 years for some 2nd degree596 Beds
2001DWI: New felony638 beds (Actual inmate pop as of July 2015)
2006, 2007Assault, stalking and protective-order violations: Enhanced charges, created Domestic Abuse No Contact Order411 beds
2015Ammunition: Treated like firearm for 5-year minimum 66 beds (Projection)
*Note: Data also include impact of sentencing guidelines revised in reaction to legislation.
Source: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission

Minnesota still has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment in the country, though Reitz noted at Wednesday’s meeting that the state recently fell out of the nation’s top-three lowest for the first time since 1979 (now we’re fourth). Nonetheless, as a result of the inmate spike, the Department of Corrections no longer has enough beds for its population, and more than 500 inmates are currently residing in county jails as a temporary solution.

The task force is considering a multitude of proposals to come up with a long-term fix. The DOC is asking the Legislature for $141.5 million to expand its Rush City facility to accommodate more beds. Officials in Swift County have proposed the state lease Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Appleton, which closed in 2010 due to national prison cutbacks. Reopening the prison would cost between $6-$8 million per year to lease, plus operating and other costs, according to figures provided by the firm lobbying for the project. 

The meeting came on the same day 130 of the nation's top law enforcement officials, including Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, announced a new coalition with the goal of reducing incarceration rates across the country.