The Future of Drug Sentencing in Minnesota.
By, John L. Fossum, Rice County Attorney
One of the bills passed by the legislature last month, and signed by the Governor, was a significant change in the way drug crimes will be prosecuted and sentenced starting in August. The bill came about because of changes suggested by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. The guidelines commission recommended across the board reductions in felony drug sentences, but did not recommend changes to the underlying statutes.
The Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Minnesota State Public Defender’s Office, the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, U.S. Justice Action Network, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Minnesota Sheriffs Association, and Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association combined to reach a compromise which instead of lowering all sentences, protects public safety by allowing penalties for dealers of large amounts of drugs while reducing penalties and enhancing treatment options for first time offenders with small amounts.
This agreement between prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement, allowed for a significant overhaul of drug offenses and sentencing. The lowest level offense, 5 th Degree Possession, moves from a felony to a gross misdemeanor, which means there is a maximum penalty of 1 year in jail and $3,000 fine, but for a first time offense the court must stay adjudication meaning if the offender successfully completes probation there will be no conviction entered, if they do not, the offender could serve local jail time.
For more serious offense, 3 rd and 4 th Degree level offenses, the court now has an option to stay adjudication and allow even those slightly higher level offenses to avoid a conviction by completing probation and seeking treatment. Lower level offenders also will no longer face mandatory minimum sentences for second offenses.
The amounts needed to secure a conviction of the highest level offenses, 1 st and 2 nd degree are increased for cocaine and methamphetamine, though the original levels remain if the offender possessed a gun. 1 st and 2 nd Degree convictions will still have mandatory minimum sentences for repeat convictions. Offenders currently serving sentences will have earlier access to the Department of Corrrections Boot Camp program.
The prison population in Minnesota has increased from just over 6,200 inmates in 2000 to over 10,100 at the beginning of 2016. At the same time the population of Minnesota increased roughly 10%. Minnesota’s incarceration rate places it 49 th in the nation, ahead of only Maine. From 2000 – 2016 the number of people sitting in our prisons for drug offenses went from 1,000 to 1,900, again outstripping the rate of growth in the population and in our prison population generally.
Minnesota’s prisons are currently over-capacity and some offenders have been transferred to local jails to complete their sentences. The consensus among lawmakers has been to reduce the number of people entering prison and making sure that we are not imprisoning people for addiction. The statute creates a fund from the savings of reduced prison population into drug courts and expanded treatment programs for offenders.
Rice County’s Drug Court is one of the programs intended to reduce pressure on the prisons by giving offenders a chance to remain in the community, be employed, and treat their addictions. This compromise will allow better options for community treatment while protecting public safety by maintaining penalties for serious drug dealers.