After years of decline, drugs are coming back in a big way in Minnesota prisons.
From 2010 to 2014, the number of beds dedicated to inmates serving time for drug-related offenses increased almost 40 percent, according to data from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which studies incarceration trends. As of July 2015, about 20 percent of inmates were incarcerated for drug crimes — making such offenses among the most represented in Minnesota prisons, second only to crimes of person, such as burglary and robbery.
The influx of inmates convicted of drug crimes could bring drug reform to the forefront of the Legislature next year — a subject some policymakers and advocates say is long overdue. Attempts to change Minnesota's relatively harsh drug laws have fallen flat in the past, but lawmakers will face added pressure now as they take up the difficult — and likely expensive — task of solving the state's prison overpopulation crisis.
A new meth boom
Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, convened a task force designed to come up with solutions to Minnesota’s prison overcrowding. Currently, the corrections system is about 500 inmates over capacity, and lawmakers are weighing several potential remedies, including reopening a private prison in Appleton and spending $141 million to expand the DOC's Rush City facility and accommodate the overflow.
At a recent meeting of that task force, Nate Reitz, director of the sentencing commission, pointed out one of the causes of the problem: The number of people imprisoned for drug offenses — particularly for meth offenses — has gone up significantly in recent years. As of 2014, meth-related crimes accounted for more beds in state prisons than all other drugs combined.
“Whether this is a long-term trend, I have no idea,” he warned policymakers. “But it’s something that could be viewed as a red flag.”
The rise in meth crimes mirrors the epidemic of the early 2000s. Between 2002 and 2005, the state ranked third in the nation for meth users ages of 18-25.
That boom translated into more prisoners. From 1998 to 2005, the state's drug-crime prison population tripled. In 2005, Minnesota corrections facilities dedicated about 1,600 beds to amphetamine offenders alone, according to the sentencing commission data.
The bubble finally burst in the mid-2000s, due in large part to new laws that regulated the purchase of previously over-the-counter meth ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine. And in 2006, the Legislature created a registry that helped law enforcement track meth criminals and warn residents about offenders in their communities. By 2010, the number of prison beds for meth offenders had declined to about 900.
Today, Minnesota is experiencing a major meth resurgence. From 2007 to 2014, the number of people seeking treatment for the drug in Minneapolis and St. Paul almost doubled, according to a recent study from Drug Abuse Dialogues, a group that analyzes drug-use data in Minnesota.
Once again, the state’s prisons are seeing the consequences. In 2014, meth offenders accounted for 1,735 beds in Minnesota prisons — about 65 percent of all drug offenders incarcerated. That’s a 90 percent increase from five years ago — and the highest number of incarcerated amphetamine offenders in at least 10 years, according to the sentencing commission data.
Carol Falkowski, author of the Drug Dialogues study, attributes the new boom to the product coming in from other countries. While small-time meth labs are much more scarce than in the early 2000s, there’s been a significant increase in drugs coming in over the Mexican border, she says.
“It’s never really gone away, but the supply is making it easier than ever to use and the appeal is still there,” she says.
‘We don’t treat as many as we should’
Research has indicated that getting offenders into treatment programs can reduce their likelihood of committing crimes after release. According to one Department of Corrections study, published in 2010, inmates who completed treatment programs were 4 to 9 percentage points less likely to end up back in prison in comparison to those untreated. “Treatment works,” said Nanette Larson, health services director for DOC.
But Minnesota only has the resources to treat a fraction of offenders suffering from addiction. In fiscal year 2014, about 3,900 newly committed offenders qualified for the DOC’s drug treatment program, an intensive inpatient regiment that isolates patients and addresses substance abuse in tandem with criminal behavior. Of those, only 1,200, or about one-third, actually made it into the rehab program, according to DOC statistics.
“It’s sad to say we don’t treat as many as we should,” DOC Commissioner Thomas Roy said at a recent prison task force meeting.
Those imprisoned for drug offenses aren’t the only criminals in state prisons suffering from addiction, of course. As part of the intake process, the DOC evaluates every new inmate for substance dependency. Terry Carlson, deputy commissioner for DOC, said about 90 percent of new inmates meet the addiction criteria. With only 916 chemical dependency beds and a prison population exceeding 10,000, the department uses a triage system to identify those with the greatest need for treatment.
Still, said Larson: “We are the state’s largest provider of chemical dependency treatment.”
The inpatient program isn’t the only option for patients suffering from addiction issues. The prison system also offers Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs, and getting patients into community drug treatment programs is often a condition of an offender’s release.
Carlson said a current DOC proposal to expand its Rush City facility to accommodate more inmates would also allow for the capacity to add about 60 beds to the inpatient program.
“It’s really an issue of space for us,” said Carlson. “We don’t have the programming space that we need. You can’t just do it in a gym.”