Drug sentencing reductions prompt legislative battle

Published 10:32 am Sunday, March 6, 2016

State Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, says he’s tending agree with law enforcement and county attorneys who’ve spoken out about controversial changes to the state’s drug sentencing guidelines.

“They’ve made a pretty compelling case with me,” he said.

A legislative tug-of-war is forming over forthcoming reductions to prison sentences for some major drug offenders, as a top Senate Democrat announced plans Wednesday to expand the changes that some Republicans have vowed to block.

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Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission slashed proposed sentences in November for most first- and second-degree drug possession convictions in an effort to move more in line with the rest of the nation and ease prison overcrowding. The changes take effect in August unless the Legislature vetoes them, which could give lawmakers a way to free up prison beds without a vote that could seem soft on crime in an election year.

But while county prosecutors have balked and some Republicans have opposed the changes, Democratic Sen. Ron Latz introduced a proposal Wednesday that would retroactively apply the lighter sentences to current inmates — not just new offenders. That sets the stage for the commission’s action to proceed unchanged, since both the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-majority Senate would need to reject the reductions to undo them.

“That might well be the outcome,” Latz, chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said even as he pushed for the broader legislation. “As far as I’m concerned, if that were to happen, it would still be a big step forward.”

Sparks said he expected the issue to be much discussed this session.

“I think it’s going to be a hot topic,” he said.

District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said she could see both sides of the issue. Jails are becoming overcrowded and Poppe sees the need for people to try to find a way to reduce it. She also noted the consequence has to fit the crime, but she said changing the guidelines for a consequence that is too severe could mean that people who should be in a restricted environment are going to be let free.

Proponents call the change a way to help addicts get treatment instead of letting them languish in prison. And while Sparks said he understands the need to help people get treatment, he says he’s heard compelling opposition from law enforcement and prosecutors.

“I think we’ve got to be very careful if we’re going to weaken those laws,” he said.

Minnesota’s county attorneys, the primary prosecutors in drug cases, have called the reductions misguided, arguing that they give lighter treatment to some of the worst dealers of heroin, methamphetamines and cocaine.

Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen spoke out against the changes because it affects addicts and dealers.

“The people that are getting the biggest break aren’t the addicts, they’re the people that are selling this stuff and who are profiting off of other people’s misery and there’s no way they should get a break,” she said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Nelsen noted the change could also have trickle down effects in other parts of the criminal justice system like law enforcement and corrections, and she said the changes make little sense when Mower County has seen deaths and crimes tied to drugs.

Nelsen isn’t alone. The Minnesota County Attorney’s Association, which includes county attorneys from across the state, penned a letter opposing the change and arguing the Legislature could have better addressed the issues.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said he understands the push to keep to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison, he sees changing the sentencing guidelines as a flawed solution, especially when users aren’t distinguished from dealers.

“That’s not really addressing the problem in a meaningful way,” said Ostrem, who is president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association’s board of directors.

The debate is intertwined with discussions on how to ease overcrowding in Minnesota prisons that’s also spurred talk of expanding facilities and reopening a privately run prison in Appleton. By cutting first-degree possession sentences nearly in half and converting second-degree offenders’ current four-year sentence into probation, the reductions could move more than 500 inmates out of state facilities in the next decade.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who indicated last week that the House would veto the lesser sentences. Even Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has expressed unease.

“We shouldn’t accept them,” Cornish said Wednesday. “There are a number of people that are upset about the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, that it went too far.”

Latz said he won’t let the Legislature scrap the new sentences without subbing in other substantive reductions and changes to drug laws. But in just a 10-week session that begins next week, he acknowledged that tackling such a politically tricky issue would be a hard task, echoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.

“It is really tough politics because it writes really tough literature on the campaign trail,” Bakk said last week.

—Reporter Jordan Gerard, The Associated Press contributed to this report.