Religious Activists Applaud Vote To Slash Sentences For Drug Offenders

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Bill Sorem

Applause broke out in the small, crowded hearing room as a state commission voted to recommend changes to Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines Wednesday afternoon.

Religious groups and other activists had been lobbying for the change as a matter of equality and justice. But Minnesota’s full prisons and the high cost of building or renting new facilities may have prompted the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to slash recommended sentences for first degree drug offenders nearly in half.

Data presented to the commission show that current sentences are harsh for methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine users. Low-level drug offenders too often end up with sentences that should be reserved for major drug dealers, swelling the state prison population to the point where county jails are being used to house inmates. Lawmakers are considering spending $170 to expand prison capacity.

Supreme Court Justice Christopher Dietzen, the group’s chair and author of the sentencing guideline proposal, said it could free up to 700 beds which could reduce or eliminate the need to expand state prisons.

That’s welcome news to members of the religious group ISAIAH, who filled up today’s crowded hearing room and earlier held a prayer vigil outside the legislature’s Prison Population Task Force (which is also focusing on the sentencing issue). ISAIAH is concerned that the state may reopen a shuttered private prison in Appleton owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Legislators have been wary of allowing CCA to do business in Minnesota again because it has a bad reputation when it comes to treatment of prisoners, but is considering renting the prison. ISAIAH is opposed to giving any money to CCA.

“Don’t take the money and throw it at putting people in a box.”
Video at top: Alonzo talks about his experience in prison
Video at bottom: full Sentencing Guidelines Commission meeting

“$170 million is a lot of money to be given to a prison or to any organization that’s going to put people in a box,” said an ex-felon who identified himself as Alonzo. “I’ve been in and out of boxes my whole life.” He said prisons don’t try to help inmates reform themselves. “They threw me away for six months, nine months, a year, three years. Each and every time a mistake was made, there wasn’t a conversation. There was no help.”

“You guys have a responsibility,” he told the commission. “There are men out here who want to do right. Who want to do something better.”

Alonzo suggested the money could be better spent on programs to give kids something good to do instead of becoming criminals. “Don’t just say we need a place to put them,” Alonzo said of young offenders. “We need something to do for them. Don’t take the money and throw it at putting people in a box.”

Dietzen says Minnesota’s population of imprisoned drug offenders has jumped 171 percent in the last two decades. Current state law suggests a seven-year sentence for a first-degree drug possession charge – 25 grams of heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine.

The commission lowered the sentence to four years. The current four-year sentence for second-degree possession would likely become probation.

The sentencing reductions will come up for a public hearing and final vote next month, and the Legislature has a window to veto them before they would take effect in August. ISAIAH Strategic Campaigns Coordinator Lars Negstad expects police and prosecutors will continue to work against the sentencing reduction proposal.

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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