New drug guidelines crack down on dealers, help low level offenders

Published 10:44 am Friday, June 3, 2016

While many people were unhappy with the unfinished business of the 2016 Minnesota Legislature, local attorneys and law enforcement are pleased that new drug sentencing guidelines will crack down on drug dealers and help low-level offenders get clean.

Lawmakers approved a broad set of reductions to prison sentences for most drug offenders. This supplanted the more drastic changes set in motion late last year by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which law enforcement and county officials complained would offer lighter treatment to drug dealers. The commission’s actions would have taken effect in August had the Legislature not stepped in.

Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen said the new guidelines will allow for more punishment to be handed to drug dealers and those who use or possess firearms during the offense. Less punishment but more treatment options will be given to low level drug offenders, such as drug users.

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“What the guidelines did is in some ways it gives us a chance to help the lower level offenders, help them get into treatment [and] help them to do what they need to do to get better,” Nelsen said. “But it still lets us get some punishment and to get more punishment for the higher end dealers and that’s our goal.”

The changes will go into effect on Aug. 1 and any crimes that happen before that date will have sentences determined under the old guidelines, because crimes are filed according to the date they took place. Any drug crimes after Aug. 1 will be under the new guidelines.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem added the bill also changes the weights of drugs. Whereas, it used to take 10 grams or more to convict someone for a first-degree drug crime, it now takes 17 grams of methamphetamine or cocaine.

The bill did not change the amounts of heroin to get a conviction because heroin is often sold in much smaller quantities, Nelsen said.

“Drug dealers are punished more severely than possessors,” Ostrem said. “We want to treat drug addicts differently from sellers.”

He added the hope is to use local resources such as treatment centers to help addicts stop using and ultimately bring down the demand.

“Drugs are never going to go away, but we would like to see fewer repeat offenders, fewer families impacted,” Ostrem said. “We’re never going to eliminate drugs, but hopefully as a community, we have a better way to deal with it.”

Nelsen agrees and said the goal isn’t to lock somebody up for being a drug user, but to lock up drug sellers.

“If people are selling, we want them locked up because we have people dying in this community,” Nelsen said. “I don’t think a few years ago we could say that. We didn’t have people in the meth crisis that were dying on a regular basis to the same extent that they’re dying now of heroin.”

So if someone is caught with a trace amount of drugs, they have a chance to be convicted of a gross misdemeanor instead of getting a felony on their record under the new guidelines.

Also under the new guidelines, smaller drug crimes such as a fifth-degree, can’t be used to enhance a second-degree drug crime, which the old guidelines allowed.

Though the new guidelines aim to help low-level offenders stop using drugs, Nelsen said the reality is there probably are not enough community resources.

“The problem we’re going to have is that there just aren’t the treatment beds available,” Nelsen said. “There aren’t a lot of resources and we have such a volume around here that probation does an amazing job but there are more offenders than agents. The goal is help these people.”

Nelsen said a big help would be to get a drug court in Mower County, which is different from a normal criminal court.

“A drug court is a court that is very specialized and it functions on having a certain group of offenders. They have to be selected for drug court, it’s not you don’t just go to drug court,” Nelsen said. “It’s treatment based, it’s a supportive environment.”

“It’s really based on getting them clean and getting them through the other side,” she said.

Dodge and Steele counties have drug courts, and the new bill and guidelines will get the county one step closer to having a drug court or program like it.

Nelsen said another key is to educate people about today’s drugs.

“I think people want to think that [it] happens in other people’s families or … ‘Not in my community,’ ‘Not in my social status.’ And it’s happening in every social status,” she said. “It’s happening to families we know. Heroin is here and it’s happening and the more we can educate on that, the better.”’

Previous guidelines

In January 2016, the Sentencing Guidelines Commission wanted to separate drug crimes from the overall crime sentencing grid, or the way sentences are decided, and put it in its own grid.

However, those changes, which would have taken effect had the legislature not passed the new guidelines, would have given drug dealers a break too, Nelsen said.

“What they did was not significantly change low level drug offenders, but give a huge break to the high-end drug dealers,” Nelsen said. “And they were lowering the sentences dramatically for the big drug dealers.”

Instead of that, drug dealers will be punished and drug users will get help, Nelsen added.