Different approach sought in drug changes

Some praised it as a plan to give drugs addicts a break, but county attorneys across the state are calling for the Minnesota Legislature to take steps to reverse a change to lessen the state’s sentencing guidelines for drug crimes before it takes effect Aug. 1.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission voted late last year to overhaul the state’s drug sentencing guidelines by easing penalties for drug possession and dealing.

Proponents called it a way to help addicts get treatment instead of letting them languish in prison. But 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.

“People are dying from drugs, and the sentencing guidelines commission has decided to lower the punishment for the people dealing the drugs,” she said.

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.

“We understand that there need to be alternatives,” she said. “We wish the Legislature would have done it. The guidelines can’t change the laws. They can change the sentencing.”

The plan

Minnesota’s criminal sentencing guidelines guide how criminals are sentenced once convicted. Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines are the complex framework in which our state’s criminal law is decided. The guidelines determine how people are punished for crimes they commit, and the state’s judicial system by and large abides by them.

Under the plan approved late last year, which has been years in the making, recommended prison sentences for first-time offenders convicted of first-degree drug possession would be reduced from seven to four years. Sentences for first-degree drug sale would be reduced from seven to five years.

Presumptive prison sentences in second-degree sale and possession cases were changed to probation by the commission.

Supporters of the idea say Minnesota’s drug laws have been too severe and have worsened racial disparities in the prison system.

 ‘A good start’

December’s vote came a week after an emotional hearing featuring testimony from recovering drug addicts, police officers and church leaders. Advocates for reform called the changes a step in the right direction.

Advocate Joshua Esmay said the proposals reduce “the unnecessary severity” of Minnesota’s drug laws and brings the state in line with other states and the federal system.

“I think there’s more to be done, but certainly this is a good start,” said Esmay, director of public policy and advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice and co-chair of the state’s Second Chance Coalition, which helps people with criminal records reintegrate into society.

Owatonna native Rob Stewart told the Owatonna People’s Press that Minnesota courts tend to award longer sentences for smaller quantities of drugs than other states, and the new guidelines will reduce that disparity.

“I think they’re a good start,” said Stewart, who was convicted of a first-degree drug crime in 2007 and now is finishing a sociology Ph.D and working with the Second Chance Coalition. “I still think there’s a lot of work to do, but the moves the sentencing commission are pursuing are a step in the right direction.”

The change could also be a cost-saving measure as analysts say the changes could save 523 prison beds in Minnesota by 2028.

 ‘Very different people’

The call to lessen sentences for drug users isn’t unique to Minnesota. It’s caught attention across the country.

While 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.

Nelsen and Ostrem acknowledged there needs to be better alternatives for drug users and addicts. However, they argue it should have been addressed by the Legislature, not the sentencing guidelines.

The guidelines, Ostrem said, treat users and dealers the same, which is not the case.

“They are very different people,” he said.

Most drug abusers going to prison have had a chance at help, Nelsen argued, and most drug users who eventually get a prison sentence for drug crimes have had several chances at probation and treatment.

“It’s not like somebody gets caught with drugs, we’re throwing them straight into prison, that’s not how it works,” she said.

Though the state reduced the sentencing guidelines, the threshold for crime remains the same. Ultimately, it could mean more people receiving probation.

“We’re going to have more of those type of people in our community as well, because they’re not going to prison, and the people that are selling have lesser punishments, so it’s a lesser disincentive for them to stop,” she said.

However, Nelsen warned there has been no subsequent change to increase funding for counties to help handle and address people in need of services and treatment.

“That’s not a fair shifting of the burden,” Nelsen said.

Nelson added that more people receiving probation will likely increase the need for treatment beds, and it could lead to more people committing new crimes tied to drugs. Nelsen added that some of the armed robberies Austin saw in 2015 were committed by people seeking drug money.

 Attorneys call for distinctions

Nelsen said the changes add an extra burden on prosecutors to prove someone is a dealer.

Someone they can prove is selling 100 grams of meth, for example, would get more prison time than someone with 1,000 grams if there’s not proof they’re dealing like a scale or other equipment, even though Nelsen said it’s highly unlikely someone would have that much for personal use.

“It’s added an extra burden that we have to prove when it’s simply common sense that nobody has that much dope for their own personal use,” Nelsen said.

Ostrem argues another key flaw is that the state treats methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine under the same blanket guidelines as narcotic drugs. However, heroin is far different and far deadlier.

Not only are heroin doses drastically smaller than cocaine and meth doses, but people can overdose on far smaller amounts of heroin.

“The lethality of heroin is so far greater,” Ostem said.

That lethality has been seen in Austin.

“I know that heroin is killing people in Austin, Minnesota,” Ostrem said.

That’s why Ostrem and Nelsen are calling for more thoughtful changes based around drug crimes, and they especially do not want to see heroin dealers getting reduced sentences. If anything, they want harsher sentences for those selling dangerous drugs.

“I think they just need to get pounded for selling heroin,” Ostrem said.

A better change to the drug laws, Ostrem argued, would be to alter the threshold for meth and cocaine so its higher than the threshold for heroin.

Those types of changes would have to come from the Minnesota Legislature.

Nelsen and Ostrem both argued the Legislature could have addressed those concerns in a more holistic way where it helps addicts while continuing to punish dealers.

Both expressed willingness to go to the Legislature, though legislation put forward by the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association last year didn’t pass.

However, Ostrem has already been talking to area legislators, and he said they’ve been open to discussing the idea, especially when he’s explained the difference between heroin and other drugs.

 —The Associated Press and The Owatonna People’s press contributed to this report.

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