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How the Minnesota Senate’s anti-crime plan could (eventually) swamp the state’s prison system

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell told the Senate’s Finance Committee that Minnesota’s prison and supervision costs would “increase dramatically” if the GOP plan were to pass.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell told the Senate’s Finance Committee that the state’s prison and supervision costs will “increase and increase dramatically,” if the bill were to pass.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell told the Senate’s Finance Committee that the state’s prison and supervision costs will “increase and increase dramatically,” if the bill were to pass.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A public safety plan from Republicans who control Minnesota’s Senate would make sweeping changes to criminal penalties, increasing them for certain violent crimes and also increasing prison time broadly.

One measure would change Minnesota’s system of granting supervised release for most offenders after they serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison to releasing them after three-fourths of their sentence.

Top Republicans say the plan is an effort to increase accountability for those who commit offenses and to decrease violent crime. They point out Minnesota incarcerates relatively few people compared to other states (though Minnesota has high rates of probation). The bill also wouldn’t cause a spike in the prison population or cost much money in the short term.

It would, however, substantially increase the number of people in Minnesota’s prisons later on — to the point that they could eventually be overloaded.

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On Tuesday, Paul Schnell, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said during a hearing of the Senate’s Finance Committee that it’s the Legislature’s prerogative to increase sentences “especially in light of what’s going on.” But he said as a result, the state’s prison and supervision costs will “increase and increase dramatically,” if the bill were to pass.

“And the day will come when the state will need to rent beds or increase capacity by building a new prison,” Schnell said.

How the GOP’s public safety plan would impact prisons

The Republican public safety omnibus bill — which includes dozens of measures rolled into one piece of legislation — hasn’t attracted much Democratic support and is all but certain not to clear the DFL-controlled House in its current form. But the legislation does signal top GOP priorities heading into an election year when the party has a shot at winning the House, Senate and governor’s office.

The bill includes the measure to extend the time before people are allowed supervised release, but also includes many other policies that lengthen prison sentences. One proposal would establish carjacking as a crime — a violent carjacking is usually charged right now as a robbery — and increase maximum penalties over what a robbery charge would bring.

Adults who commit a third violent felony or a sixth felony of any kind would face longer prison sentences under another measure, as would people who commit a violent crime involving a gun.

In total, Schnell said there were eight policy bills included in the omnibus plan that would impact prison beds for years. And not just minimally. “Collectively, the policies will, in the long term, stretch well beyond the state’s existing capacity,” Schnell said.

The state’s current prison population is about 7,500, and the state has capacity for about 9,500 people. But the current number of people is lower than normal, Schnell said. Courts have faced backlogs because of the COVID-19 pandemic that should ease and result in more imprisoned people, Schnell told the Finance committee.

The DOC estimates it would need an extra 261 prison beds in 2023 because of the bill, roughly 706 additional beds by 2024 and 1,100 in 2025. Ten years out, in 2032, the state would need more than 2,270 additional beds, Schnell said. That’s more than the total capacity of Minnesota’s largest prison in Faribault.

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The public safety omnibus bill includes $2.7 million for prison bed costs from those eight policy provisions in 2023, and officials estimate they would cost $23.8 million over the following two-years. But the measures would become pricier over time. 

The DOC estimated the additional beds would cost $36 million by 2035, and while the Senate bill would pay for additional beds in the short term, it would not fund additional long-term costs from having more people incarcerated, such as a new prison or bed rentals. Spokesman Nicholas Kimball said the DOC would exceed its current capacity as early as 2025.

“While these provisions in some instances profoundly increase sanctions for criminal behavior, they also come at a profound economic cost,” Schnell said.

Schnell said the omnibus bill comes as the DOC faces an estimated $600 million in maintenance needs for prisons they already operate. 

Schnell also argued the agency is not in a better financial position because of their lower prison population. The DOC’s budget was reduced by $21 million in 2021 by the Legislature because of that reduced number of people. The state also faces a staffing crisis in prisons and county jails, which could be exacerbated by the bill, Schnell said.

Still, the Legislature is flush with cash, at least at the moment. Lawmakers have a $9.25 billion budget surplus, plus another $1 billion in unspent federal money from the American Rescue Plan. The Senate’s $2.7 million for bed costs in 2023 would be only a small fraction of that surplus.

Schnell told the Finance committee that the state should focus on addressing violent crime and repeat offenders amid an increase in crime, and he said prison commitment does play a role in crime deterrence as well. But he also said the GOP plan doesn’t invest enough in rehabilitation and restoration strategies. Instead, he said it “focuses solely and significantly on increased punishment.”

State Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the public safety committee, said Tuesday during the Finance committee hearing that the public safety bill “provides a more robust level of not only punishment but deterrence in the form of sentencing and that’s directed at the very worst of the worst of our offenders that we are seeing in our communities now, especially those that are using firearms to carry out their criminal acts.”