How a new state law could dramatically worsen prison overcrowding in Minnesota

photograph of ammunition
A new law that went into effect on August 1 creates a five-year mandatory-minimum sentence for felons with histories of violent crimes caught possessing bullets or other ammunition.

As legislators and state officials search for long-term solutions to house Minnesota’s overflowing prison population, a newly enacted law is projected to make the problem significantly worse.

The law, an amendment to Minnesota’s gun regulations, creates a five-year mandatory-minimum sentence for felons with histories of violent crimes caught possessing bullets or other ammunition – the same sentence the offenders would receive if they were caught with a firearm.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, offered up the amendment in April as part of the omnibus public safety bill and it passed the senate unanimously. The bill prompted no discussion at the Legislature, even though it could have the most significant impact on the state’s prison system of any measure passed in the 2015 session. According to projections from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the law could create the need for as many as 114 more beds by 2019, a more than 20 percent increase from the present 500-prisoner overflow.

The sentencing commission, which studies trends and develops uniform punishment guidelines for criminal offenses, made several projections on the fiscal impact of the law based on 2013 crime data and how similar laws played out in other states. The commission calculated that the law will increase the number of offenders by anywhere from 3.2 to 15 percent.

Here’s the breakdown of best-, middle- and worst-case scenario impacts on prison resources, according to the commission:

Estimated additional prison beds needed
Source: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission

Nate Reitz, the sentencing guidelines commission’s executive director, emphasized that it’s impossible to predict a precise impact. In a recent presentation to legislators and prison officials, he used the mid-range figure of 66 beds when discussing the consequences of the law, though there is some concern that 66 is an underestimate, he said.

Minnesota’s overpopulation problem is due to an unprecedented spike in incarcerations since 2000, driven by harsher penalties for crimes like DWI, drugs and sex offenses. Though Minnesota still has one of the lowest prison population rates in the country, the number of inmates has exceeded capacity, and the Department of Corrections is presently housing overflow in county jails across the state as a temporary solution.

Last month, Latz launched a task force designed to address the problem in advance of the 2016 session. The committee is considering several solutions, including the Department of Corrections proposal to expand its Rush City facility at a cost of $141 million. Over in Western Minnesota, Swift County officials have proposed that the state lease the Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison in Appleton, which hasn’t housed inmates since 2010.

The projected impact of Latz’s amendment has scarcely been mentioned at the task force meetings so far. In an interview, the senator said he hadn’t seen the guidelines commission reports, but his amendment was designed to give prosecutors a tool to charge offenders who pose a risk to public safety but are not caught with a weapon. As an example, he cited a suspect ditching a gun before an arrest but still being caught with the ammunition clip.

Though he introduced the bill earlier this year, he said after seeing more data, he now believes the five-year mandatory-minimum sentence to be “problematic.”

“I think the policy move was in the right direction, but now that we’re gathering all this complete information and putting it in full context, I think it’s worth re-evaluating the length of mandatory sentence,” Latz said.

Racial disparities likely to increase

The law, which went into effect on August 1, will also exacerbate another problem facing Minnesota’s prisons: racial disparity.

Minnesota currently incarcerates people of color at dramatically higher rates than it does white residents. According to the most recent data: black people make up about 6 percent of Minnesotans, but about 35 percent of prisoners. Native Americans account for 1.3 percent of state residents, but 9.5 percent of prisoners.

Those disparities are likely to widen in the aftermath of the new ammunition law: The sentencing guidelines commission projects that about 52 percent of offenders who will go to prison as a result of the new law will be black, while about 8 percent will be Native American. Only 32 percent will be white.

Impact by race
Source: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission

While examining racial disparities isn’t the main prerogative of the prison task force, Latz said the disparity in prisons is on the radar for him and other legislators. “It’s a very important issue for us to address,” he said.

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Comments (33)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 11/02/2015 - 10:02 am.

    So what do you think criminals with a history of VIOLENT crimes are going to do with ammo? Our argument is we don’t have enough beds? How about we lock up folks who are violent when we catch them with guns or ammo. When you choose to become a violent felon (yes bleeding hearts that is a choice) you give up your right to treated like everyone else. How about we think more of how to protect law abiding citizens and less on where convicted violent felons are going to sleep!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/02/2015 - 11:27 am.

      Speaking as a Bleeding Heart

      I am largely in agreement with what you say (BTW, “beds” is just a term used to express the capacity of a prison). I would say also that the “lock up folks who are violent when we catch them with guns or ammo” argument should apply not only to violent felons, but to domestic abusers and other violent actors who are not felons.

      The prison capacity issue could be dealt in part with by releasing non-violent offenders, such as persons convicted of needlessly harsh drug laws. Otherwise, we have to ask if the “tough on crime” rhetoric that sells so well on the airwaves is really a useful formula for policy-making.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/02/2015 - 09:02 pm.

      So lock them up?

      1 inmate, 1 year, $41,364; 66 inmates,1 year= $2,730,024, 10 years $27,300,240
      Given that level of protection one can only assume that the “lock em-up folks” are in favor of increasing taxes to cover those costs? Not sure what the social costs are i.e. bread winner goes to jail, family goes on welfare? What maybe 50% of the incarceration cost? Need more public defenders, judicial time etc. There is that government, picking pockets again, and ironically, folks ask them to do it, and then complain!.
      (Social liberal, fiscal conservative)

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/02/2015 - 11:12 am.

    Dumb law

    Even violent criminals can’t harm you with ammunition only. They need a gun. Let’s focus on preventing prosecutors from plea bargaining down for felons who get caught with a firearm while committing a crime, which I’m sure happens in Minnesota courtrooms every day. That would be more relevant and meaningful.

    Forget the ammo-only charge. It’s meaningless.

  3. Submitted by Russ Hilbert on 11/02/2015 - 11:15 am.

    overcrowding

    I’m not concerned about how criminals are crowded in jails. I’m concerned with getting criminals off the streets.

  4. Submitted by Hal Davis on 11/02/2015 - 11:17 am.

    Think less

    When we think less about “where convicted violent felons are going to sleep,” we don’t think about how taxpayers will foot the bill for their sleeping quarters.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Weyandt on 11/02/2015 - 11:38 am.

    how about waiting a bit

    Since there likely hasn’t been a single person convicted under this statute how about waiting a bit before you start to craft modifications. Once there’s a track record you could even take some time to figure out whether the folks who were convicted of violating this law are the types that need to be in prison for the protection of society. There aren’t likely to be many with totally clean records getting picked off under this law.

  6. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 11/02/2015 - 11:59 am.

    Trade-off

    Yeah, I’m all in favor of incarcerating violent felons who are found with ammunition (and I’m as liberal as they get). Worried about overcrowding? Fine, then release everyone who’s been convicted of ridiculous “crimes” like smoking marijuana. There’ll be plenty of beds left for the real criminals then.

  7. Submitted by Shaina Brassard on 11/02/2015 - 01:01 pm.

    Focus should be on source of guns

    If we want to have an impact on gun violence, we need to get at the source of guns in Minnesota. How to offenders with a history of violence get guns and ammunition? It is far too easy to buy a handgun out of a trunk for $70 in many of our neighborhoods, especially where poverty is high and opportunity for licit employment low. In many cases, because our gun laws are some of the weakest in the nation, this sort of selling is legal and requires no background check, as the seller is protected as a “collector”.

    More mandatory minimums is crazy, and totally out of fashion nationally. We have to stop the supply problem.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 11/02/2015 - 05:10 pm.

      Name a gun law that will stop criminals from getting guns. Chicago has the strictest gun laws in the nation, if you are not law enforcement you are not allowed to carry a gun. Chicago leads the USA in reported “shots fired” and gun crime is out of control!

      • Submitted by Doug Duwenhoegger on 11/03/2015 - 04:49 am.

        Uniform Gun laws

        This is a terrible argument and it pains me when it is brought up. Without uniform gun laws you can always drive a half an hour out of Chicago to get a gun. Their gun laws don’t work because it’s too easy to get a gun from Milwaukee.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 11:05 am.

          Name a “uniform gun law” that will stop criminals from getting a gun. All of you liberals say more laws more laws then when pressed you come up with there is no law that will stop criminals from getting guns because they get them illegally, but yet chant more laws more laws!! So you come up with enforcing laws that don’t keep guns out of criminal’s hands, but make you feel better and only limit legal gun users rights. You make our case for us on the other side when you say “just because we can’t stop murder we don’t eliminate the law”, you also are not adding 10 useless laws a year to enforce the murder law on the books.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/03/2015 - 11:25 am.

            Why?

            Why does the “useless law” argument only come up when the discussion is about guns? Or why are guns afforded such a special status in our culture that we are willing to declare ourselves powerless to stop them from falling into the wrong hands?

            • Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 12:48 pm.

              Again RB, name/explain the law and how it will stop criminals from getting guns.

              • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/03/2015 - 03:01 pm.

                Gee, I Don’t Know

                Maybe a law limiting the supply of guns, or making them more easily traceable. Something like that. Do you suppose such laws would be more or less effective than the “War on Drugs?” Heck, we could always repeal the Second Amendment.

                No one is a criminal until they commit a crime. It is possible to be a “law abiding gun owner” while stockpiling massive amounts of ammunition and buying a small arsenal. You’re still “law abiding” until you take it to the multiplex or kindergarten and start shooting.

                • Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 08:42 pm.

                  So you don’t want law abiding folks to own guns? All guns have serial numbers now and can be traced to last legal owner. How would you limit the supply of guns? Are you proposing gun manufacturers should have a Government enforced law that they can only produce X amount of guns yearly? If you got rid of the 2nd amendment would you be in favor of law officers going house to house and collecting guns? How about stop and search? Just wondering what staunch anti gun person thinks.

                  • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/04/2015 - 09:39 am.

                    Anti-Gun?

                    I am anti-folly. I do not think that the deaths of schoolchildren, theatergoers, or churchgoers is an acceptable price to pay for the right to pack heat anywhere I **** well want.

                    “So you don’t want law abiding folks to own guns?” Hyperbole much? How about screening out the folks who shouldn’t have guns? Comprehensive background checks would be no 100% ironclad guarantee, but they would be a start. So sorry if it means you would have to wait a couple of days to start fondling that new Glock.

                    “How would you limit the supply of guns?” By limiting the ability to own them.

                    “If you got rid of the 2nd amendment would you be in favor of law officers going house to house and collecting guns?” That is hysteria worthy of Wayne LaPierre. Repeal or revision of the 2nd Amendment wouldn’t automatically make gun ownership illegal. Reasonable restrictions on the ownership of firearms would no more result in house-to-house searches for guns (is anyone calling for repeal of the 4th Amendment?) than rulings that child pornography is not protected by the First Amendment have resulted in blanket searches of computers. The same goes for stop-and-frisk.

                    It is the rhetoric that relies on extreme (albeit implausible) scenarios that prevents taking any kind of common-sense action to mitigate–never mind prevent–gun violence in this country. Even measures that are supported by a majority of the public are shouted down by the gun lovers.

                  • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/04/2015 - 12:21 pm.

                    Not exactly

                    This only works for guns manufactured in the recent past and was sold as a new gun in the US after that date. It doesn’t apply to older guns or guns that originated outside the US. Considering guns don’t just disappear, biodegrade, or stop working over time, there are actually lots of guns–I would venture to guess a vast majority of all guns in the US–that are almost completely untraceable. Many of those guns simply need to be removed from the system, but in ways that don’t violate Constitutional rights of citizens. Yes, even inner city people. I find it outrageous that some people believe that they deserve to keep their Second Amendment rights, while “those other people” don’t deserve to keep their Fourth Amendment rights.

            • Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 11/03/2015 - 12:48 pm.

              Because!

              If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. Similarly, if you make murder a crime, only criminals will commit murder. The stale waft of that old argument is enough to knock the birds off the wires for a block downwind.

          • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/03/2015 - 01:24 pm.

            Got to agree with some of the other posters

            Name a uniform speeding law that will stop speeders from speeding?
            Name a uniform IRS law that will stop tax cheats from cheating?
            Name a uniform arson law that will stop arson’s from starting fires?
            Name a uniform predatory sex offender law that will stop sex offenders from offending?
            Name a uniform fraud law that will stop fraud?
            Name a uniform rape law that will stop rapists from raping?
            Name a uniform prescription drug law that will stop prescription drug abuse?

            Sorry, the “uniform gun law argument” is shot full of holes!
            The answer is not; “do nothing”.

            • Submitted by joe smith on 11/03/2015 - 09:00 pm.

              Is the answer to put more laws on the books that only make it harder for law abiding folks to obtain guns legally and don’t do anything to solve the problem? I know new laws make you feel good, but would you have a new law put in that every American will be subject to an IRS investigation every year and hire a tax attorney to make sure that no one who files a tax form cheats on their taxes?

              New useless laws that don’t do anything to solve problems is a waste of our time. Please come up with something that keeps the guns out of criminals hands, I’m all for that!!

              • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/04/2015 - 04:02 pm.

                Pardon please:

                There is a small hole in the dialogue: What magical formula, screen shot, x-ray, blood test, etc. that empirically states, “Good guy, Bad guy”? And then to suggest that somehow it is someones personal responsibility to come up with the perfect solution!

                We have a drivers license exam to help screen folks that can’t drive, we don;t have an iris analysis test that screens drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel. Thus the position proposed appears to be a circular argument “Do nothing because its not the perfect solution! And it must meet someones personal agreement and that someone may not be perhaps the most rational of all folks, other than that everything know to man is useless, i.e what we have to day is near perfect,
                PS: Seems in an earlier post the opinion was to lock all those folks up, now its a useless law?

          • Submitted by Doug Duwenhoegger on 11/03/2015 - 10:03 pm.

            Expanding the Argument

            I was refuting the BS Chicago argument. It’s ridiculous. You say that Chicago has high rates of murder and shootings and say that their gun laws don’t stop people from shooting each other. No, no law will stop crime. Law punish crime.

            • Submitted by joe smith on 11/04/2015 - 08:17 am.

              Agree 100% no law will stop crime so why are the anti-gun folks so set on having more laws on the books that only hurt law abiding citizens when the multiple laws we have now are doing nothing? These are the same people who are against “stop and frisk”, the one tactic proven to get illegal guns off the streets and stop shootings in high gun crime areas, because it “racist”. The liberal views of not employing a tactic to stop gun violence that works but yet add more laws to that they agree do nothing is baffling to me!

              • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 11/05/2015 - 06:56 pm.

                Just that Easy?

                Got something called the constitution: Can’t just stop and frisk folks for walking with a hoodie, or because they are wearing a hat off to the side of their head, or red tennis shoes, or for driving a 4×4 Silverado! What is baffling about that?
                .

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/03/2015 - 09:26 am.

        Name a homicide law that will stop criminals from committing murders. Or a drug law that will stop dealers from selling crack. Or a fraud law that will stop Wall Street from pushing us into another financial crisis.

        The idea that “people are going to do it anyway” is an absurd argument against any kind of criminal law.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/02/2015 - 01:13 pm.

    Violent offenders in

    I support this. Why have ammo if you don’t have a way to use it?

    As for the space we have in jails…well, why not free some up by not having such ridiculous rules about incarceration for non-violent offenses? Focus on rehab for drug users rather than incarceration. And, while we’re at it, why not legalize, regulate, and tax prostitution? Put it above ground rather than below ground–increase the safety of both sides of the supply and demand. Reduce human trafficking and exploitation of minors, and keep more people out of jail for personal recreational decisions.

  9. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 11/02/2015 - 02:38 pm.

    Violent/Non Violent

    Instead of spending time on more “amendments’ to laws such as busting criminals for having bullets, why not take that time and do some sentence reform to ease the cost burden for incarcerating non violent criminals that suck up so many of our tax dollars?

    We would be better off offering criminals like small time druggies, DWI and white collar offenders house arrest, mandatory treatment and a restitution program where they can keep their jobs and pay for their monitoring. Only makes sense.

    How about an amendment for our lawmakers to make better use of their time?

  10. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 11/02/2015 - 03:41 pm.

    The price has already agreed to be paid.

    That is why taxes go up. Locking someone up has a dollar cost. Passing the law means the public has agreed to pay the bill, whatever it is. They wanted the law, so they pay the price of having that law. Choices have consequences.

  11. Submitted by Doug Duwenhoegger on 11/03/2015 - 04:53 am.

    Mandatory Sentencing? NO

    As I would welcome any effort to make our state safer I am completely against any mandatory sentencing. Like the zero tolerance rules in schools it takes all common sense and flexibility out of the equation and lets everyone feel better and avoid personal responsibility because they “didn’t have a choice” to give out the punishment required by law.

    Let’s start removing mandatory sentencing for non-violent crimes before adding another pile of convicts to the heaping mass.

  12. Submitted by Matt Haas on 11/04/2015 - 10:36 am.

    Umm

    You do realize you are arguing FOR another “new law” that has been created to combat gun violence right?

  13. Submitted by Kevin Vick on 11/06/2015 - 03:25 pm.

    Another “Common Sense” Gun Law

    The very people that are apoplectic about doing “something/anything” to curb gun crime are now questioning another “common sense” gun law? The irony is palatable.

  14. Submitted by Jessica Ernesti on 01/12/2016 - 08:58 pm.

    My boyfriend just went to St. Cloud prison on Friday for violating a Dwi probation, he was driving and admitted to the police that he was driving. It was just a traffic ticket but it violated his Probation, he is also on probation for a gun charge. When he was 17 he was convicted of a felony for drugs in Chicago, in Chicago at 17 you are considered an adult. Back in 2013 a house in St. Paul was raided, he was nowhere near this house at the time, they found a bullet and dusted it for prints, they found his print on it so they charged him with gun possession. He got lucky and got a downward departure meaning the five-year minimum sentence was stayed and the judge gave him a chance so he’s on probation for 10 years but any probation violation He gets for the gun charge will result in automatic execution of the 60 months. He is sentence right now to 16 months in prison, when he pleads guilty to the probation violation for the gun charge they can add on another five years because of the stupid law. He has never been to prison this is the longest time he has ever sat in jail.

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