Minnesota poised for major drug sentencing overhaul

- For the first time in 27 years, Minnesota is poised to make a major overhaul on drug sentencing guidelines, The new proposal would lower most sentences and, in the long run, lower the number of people going to prison. 

Standing together at a news conference at the state Capitol, there was a broad coalition of support for the new proposal; legislation that is only now being introduced because it took so long to iron out. 

Prosecutors and police chiefs shared the podium with public defenders and criminal defense attorneys, who admitted it’s not been easy to reach an agreement.

“It is quite rare to see law enforcement coalition stand side by side with this type of a group, I’ll leave it at that,” quipped Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts, eliciting laughs from the defense attorneys a few feet away.

In December, the Minnesota Sentencing Guideline Commission recommended new sentences that would automatically take effect on August 1.  They dropped drug crime sentences across the board, which prosecutors and law enforcement didn’t entirely like, leading to this proposed legislation.

“I really believe that we have avoided what would have been in my opinion a big disaster,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said.  “If we’d have allowed the Sentencing Guidelines Commission action to go into affect on August 1, that would have been the greatest prison discount of all time and that reform would have been focused solely on discounts for drug dealers.’

What the coalition hammered out still largely lowers drug sentences, especially for lower level possession offenses.  They agreed that those sentences have been overcrowding our prisons with people who really need help with addictions and mental illnesses, and time behind bars is not solving those problems.

“Many times coming out of prison with bigger problems and a greater threat to public safety than when they went in,” said Brock Hunter, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.  He said the lower sentences “will ensure low level offenders get help rather than just purely punishment.”

But prosecutors and law enforcement touted the proposals still strict sentencing guidelines for who they see as the center of the drug problem:  the dealers.  The guidelines remain tough on those kingpins, especially drug crimes involving guns or gangs.

There will be no breaks for serious criminals who are dealing and selling drugs in our communities,” Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said.

The bills are beginning to make their way through the house and senate. Governor Dayton said if passed, he would likely sign them.

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