How To Fix Minnesota’s Over-Capacity Prison System?

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More than 500 inmates are housed in county jails across Minnesota because the state’s prisons are too full. On that fact everyone agrees. Not so evident is how to solve the problem — build more prison capacity or reduce the number of people coming into the prison system?

This was the issue the Prison Population Task Force wrestled with on Friday. Legislators and members of interested groups heard from Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy about how Minnesota’s prison population is one of the fastest growing in the nation… and how that single statistic can be misleading.

Minnesota isn’t locking up people as fast as other states. Minnesota has the fourth-lowest incarceration rate in the nation — 194 per 100,000 people. The U.S. average is 471 per 100,000 people. Crime is also down 27% in Minnesota between 2003 and 2013.

The U.S. prison population as a whole is dropping, but Minnesota’s is up 3.5%. “Minnesota can do better,” said Task Force Co-Chair Sen. Ron Latz (DFL).

Roy said the issue wasn’t a prison population problem, but a criminal justice issue. Roy said that state sentencing guidelines that spell out how long a prison sentence should be for a particular crime are driving up the numbers of prisoners in Minnesota. 93% of convicted felons end up serving time. The average time served is 45 months. Judges used to show more leniency for women in sentencing. That’s no longer the case.

Adding to the prison population are new penalties for drunk driving put into effect in 2002. In July 2000, no one was serving time for felony DWI; this summer the number was 683. “That’s nearly half a prison,” Roy said.

Roy says the gap between prison capacity and prisoners is forecast to increase to 1,202 inmates in seven years.

Build capacity or reduce incarceration rates?

To deal with lack of prison capacity, The Department of Corrections has requested $140 million in bonding to build a new prison at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Rush City.

Sen. Scott Newman (R) suggested a cost analysis to compare costs of expanding current facilities versus leasing the now vacant 1,500-bed Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton. Corrections Corporation of America, the prison’s owner, closed the facility in Feb. 2010 following declining demand from Minnesota and other states.

Both the bonding request and potential leasing are expected to be addressed when the task force next meets Oct. 21.

When one of the legislators commented that reducing the prison population was the solution instead of building more prisons, there was applause from some of the people attending the hearing. Latz quickly admonished the group to abide by the same decorum as any other legislative hearing.

Task Force Co-Chair Rep. Tony Cornish (R) asked Roy if the prison population had a lot of low-level drug offenders as he said he had heard some groups claim. Roy said that there were some low-level drug offenders in the system. But there are a wide variety of offenders and that was all driven by the sentencing guidelines.

Cornish said at the beginning of the hearing he had an open mind on the solutions. But at the end of the hearing said he had heard nothing to convince him Minnesota was sending too many people to prison.

Editor’s note: The Minnesota House Media Service was unable to televise or livestream video of this task force because its video equipment is down for maintenance. The UpTake did livestream the entire event and an archive video of it is here.

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Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

Bill Sorem

Bill Sorem is a longtime advertising professional who started with Campbell Mithun and ended up with his own agency. After a tour as a sailing fleet manager in the Virgin Islands he turned to database programming as an independent consultant. He has written sailing guides for the British Virgin Islands and Belize, and written for a number of blogs. In 2010, he volunteered as a citizen journalist with The UpTake and has stayed on as a video reporter.

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