‘At a crossroads:' Minnesota's prisons chief says state needs to act

The man in charge of Minnesota's vast and expensive prison system says state officials must soon decide whether to build new prisons or start locking up fewer offenders.

Paul Schnell told the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission about the issue Thursday. But facing a new mandate from state lawmakers to study child-porn crimes, commissioners said they would be unlikely to wade into the probation and prison sentences issue until next year.

"The state finds itself, I think, at a crossroads. We've known this for some time," said Schnell, commissioner of the state Corrections Department. "We find ourselves in a place where we either have to build capacity – add additional capacity to our system – or find ourselves in a position where we begin to think about, is there a way to reduce population?"

Commissioners largely agreed that Minnesota's current system needed a fresh look. Minnesota has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S., but some of the longest probation terms.

But their time is limited: state lawmakers who want stiffer penalties for child-porn crimes required that the commission create a severity ranking for those cases. Commissioners said they would begin doing their review this year.

At one point during their Thursday afternoon meeting, they took an unusual vote, using sticky dots and Post-It notes to mark their top priorities on a board.

After the required child-porn study, the probation guidelines got the most votes.

Lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to change probation sentences during the 2019 legislative session.

Probation varies widely by county, meaning offenders can be sentenced to different lengths of time for the same crime, Schnell said. He said long probation periods lead to difficulties for those on supervision, which could result in violations.

Probation and supervised release violators account for 59 percent of prison admissions but only 24 percent of the inmate population because of their relatively short lengths of sentence, according to Corrections Department data.

But Commissioner Heidi Schellhas, an appeals court judge, said there could be "unintended consequences" if state lawmakers capped the length of probation sentences.

"If the judges are limited to the period of probation set by the Legislature, then they might say, ‘Well, I don't depart downward (on a prison sentence),' which could possibly increase the prison population," Schellhas said.

The state's prison population is also a concern, Schnell said. Minnesota has more than 9,500 prisoners – a decrease from 10,100 inmates in 2017 but up from 5,700 in 2000, according to agency data.

The state currently rents about 100 beds from local county jails, he said.

Only lawmakers can make changes to policies such as Minnesota's requirement that inmates serve at least 67 percent of their sentences before being released. The prison population could be smaller if Minnesota reduced the time-served requirement, Schnell said.