Over-population in Minnesota prisons attributed to mandatory drug sentences

Minnesota has a prison over-population problem, it's costing money as taxpayers and its costing society too. One of the big drivers of the growing prison population are mandatory drug sentences.

Now, the state is looking at the possibility of eliminating them. Minnesota has some of the highest mandatory minimum drug sentences in the nation. They've been on the books since 1989, but now treatment advocates, some lawmakers, and even former addicts believe it's time to roll back the clock.

If you want to see the face of addition and recovery, that face looks like Gina Evans.

"Well, I have been arrested 23 times, those 23 arrests led to 12 felony convictions,” Evans said.

And those convictions to addicts just like Evans have repeatedly sent them to prison.

At a capitol hearing on Wednesday, the Prison Population Task Force was told the problem is not going away. The data from 1998 to 2015 shows the prison population on drug charges has grown to just under 2,000 inmates – that’s a 171-percent increase -- and the vast majority of those cases involve meth.

"In two years it's gone from 53-percent of prison beds to 65-percent of prison beds,” Nate Reitz, Minnesota Sentencing Guideline Commission, said.

And it's driven by addicts who violated probation on small-time drug possession charges.

"So all together my four drug charges were less than a half a gram of meth,” Evans said. “I went to prison twice." 

Many flounder when they finally get out.

"This is a vicious cycle,” criminal defense attorney Brock Hunter said.  “And I think we have to recognize that when we send people off to prison we often have them come back worse off, creating more problems than had they gotten treatment and been allowed to stay in their communities." 

That’s why lawmakers are now considering a bill to eliminate the mandatory minimum drug sentences.

"We are really off kilter and I'm glad those people are having a conversation about it so we can get it changed,” Evans said.

The reduction in mandatory sentences in just one of the Senate bills currently under consideration could possibly reduce the need for as many as 727 prison beds.