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Four ways the Legislature could reform drug sentencing in Minnesota

In the coming year, legislators will be forced to come to terms with the state’s rising inmate population. Here’s how they’re likely to address the issue. 

In the 2016 session, legislators will have to come to terms with the state’s rising inmate population, which has shot up dramatically since 2000.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Next year could be a turning point for drug reform efforts in Minnesota.

Since the 1990s, the state has been cracking down on drug users and sellers, creating new and stricter penalties for controlled-substance crimes. As a result, Minnesota has relatively harsh drug penalties compared to other Midwestern states. And though attempts to change those measures have all fallen flat in the past, that could soon change. The difference now: Minnesota’s bloated prisons.

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In the 2016 session, legislators will have to come to terms with the state’s rising inmate population, which has shot up dramatically since 2000. Currently, the Department of Corrections is about 500 inmates over capacity. Policymakers are considering several proposals to accommodate the overflow, such as reopening a private prison in Appleton or spending $141 million to expand the DOC's Rush City facility.

Lawmakers are also looking at reforming how much time — or if — some lower-level drug offenders should sit in prison.

The state’s drug penalties have been a significant driver to the prison boom, state data show. At a recent legislative task force meeting, Nate Reitz, director of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, illustrated this by comparing penalties in Minnesota to those in other similar states. If a first-time offender gets busted in Minnesota with 19 grams of cocaine, Reitz told legislators, he or she would likely face a prison sentence of 7 years — more than five times longer than states like Oregon and Washington.

Offense MN   KS   WA   OR   US  
Sale of 19 grams of cocaine
No weapon involved
No criminal history
First time drug offense
Prison: 7 yearsPrison: 4 yearsPrison: 1+ yearsPrison: 1+ yearPrison: ~1 year
Possess 49 grams of cocaine
No weapon involved
No criminal history
First time drug offense
Prison: 7 yearsProbation: 1 yearJail: 3 monthsProbation,
3-6 months jail
No prison required
Sale of 9 grams of meth
No weapon involved
Minor criminal history
First time drug offense
Prison: 5 yearsPrison: 9 yearsPrison: 1+ yearProbation,
3-6 months jail
Prison: 1-2 years
Possess 24 grams of meth
No weapon involved
Minor criminal history
First time drug offense
Prison: 5 yearsPrison: 9 yearsJail: 1+ yearProbation,
3-6 months jail
No prison required
Source: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission

Here are four ways the Legislature could change Minnesota’s drug laws in the coming year and, in turn, free up more prison beds, all of which have already been introduced and are being discussed:

1. Repeal mandatory minimums, dramatically raise weight thresholds

This would be the most significant reform to the state’s drug laws of any proposal in play right now. It would, in effect, repeal '90s-era laws that created hardened penalties for smaller amounts of drugs like heroin and meth. Right now, first-degree drug sale is defined as 10 grams or more these controlled substances. But under a bill that was originally proposed in the 2015 legislative session by Republican Sen. Dan Hall and DFL Sens. Bobby Joe Champion and Barb Goodwin, that threshold would go up to 50 grams before an offender faced a first-degree charge, and would make similar threshold changes to second- and third-degree sales. The proposal would free up about 700 prison beds, according to the sentencing commission.

Other aspects of the bill include:

  • Repealing mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug offenders.
  • Giving suspended sentences to certain low-level drug offenders on their first charge and expanding early-release options to apply to more drug convicts.
  • Taking money saved as a result of this bill and reinvesting it back into substance abuse programs in prisons.
2. Ease some drug penalties, but strengthen others

This proposal, authored by Hall and Sen. Ron Latz, would also raise the threshold for what qualifies as first-degree drug sale for certain drugs. The first-degree sale of heroin and meth, for example, would be defined as 35 grams instead of the current 10 grams. However, the measure would also create stricter laws for marijuana. The bar for a first-degree pot possession would go from 100 kilograms down to 50 kilograms, or 500 or more plants. This bill is projected to free up about 62 beds over time.

Other aspects of the proposal include:

  • Making similar changes for second- and third-degree drug sale.
  • Dropping mandatory minimums for some lower-level offenders.
  • Creating new first- and second-degree aggravated drug offenses for repeat, high-level offenders, which require harsher sentences and add “aggravating factors” to charges that could also lead to harsher sentences.
  • Reinvesting money saved from the bill into the DOC.
3. Ease certain penalties, crack down on gun charges

This proposal, backed by GOP Rep. Tony Cornish and DFL Rep. Debra Hilstrom, is very similar to Latz's bill, but it doesn’t go quite as far in terms of raising weight thresholds. First-degree heroin and meth possession would be defined as 25 grams instead of the current 10. First-degree marijuana possession would also go from the present 100 kilograms down to 50 kilograms, or 500 or more plants. 

The proposal, which would free up about 25 prison beds, would also create mandatory-minimum penalties for drug charges that also involve weapons violations. 

Other aspects of the bill include: 

  • Making similar threshold changes for second- and third-degree charges.
  • Dropping mandatory minimums for some lower-level offenders.
  • Creating new first- and second-degree aggravated drug offenses for repeat, high-level convicts, which require harsher sentences and add “aggravating factors” to charges that could also lead to harsher sentences.
  • Reinvesting money saved from the bill back into the DOC.

4. Do nothing

One of the most significant ways the Legislature could change sentencing for drug laws in Minnesota may be to do nothing at all.

Last month, the sentencing commission voted in favor of reducing penalty recommendations for some drug offenders. The proposal will go to public comment on Dec. 23, after which the commission will take another vote on whether to pass it. If the changes stick, legislators could still introduce a bill to block or amend them. But if lawmakers do nothing, the changes will go into effect August 2016.

The new guidelines would change recommendations for prison sentences for first-degree drug sale. Right now, guidelines stipulate a 7- to 13-year sentence for this crime. Depending on criminal history, the proposed changes would lower that to about 5 to 10 years.

This would free up several hundred prison beds. The sentencing commission is still running the numbers to calculate a more precise estimate, but the longer-term savings would be significant.

Other aspects of the penalty reduction recommendations include:

  • Reducing the severity of recommended punishment for first- and second-degree possession.
  • Giving judges more leeway to consider individual factors, such as whether the person is chemically dependent and in need of treatment or a drug “kingpin.”