Senate bill aims to cut prison sentences to save state funds

Prison wall
Prison wall at the St. Cloud Correctional Facility.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The bill proposed by DFL Senator Linda Higgins would cut $78 million from the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Corrections. The bulk of the cuts, $66 million, would come from the Corrections Department.

Because most of the department's expenses come from housing inmates, Higgins said the only way to save money is by reducing the number of inmates walking into prisons and the amount of time they stay there. Her plan accomplishes that by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some offenses.

"In the last 10 or 15 years, legislators have imposed all of these mandatory minimums and taken away any discretion that judges have on certain things," Higgins said. "And all of the research that's been going around the country on prison systems have found that it has really been a driver in an explosion of costs in a prison system."

Higgins wants to repeal required minimum sentences for felony drunk drivers, for some drug offenses and for predatory offenders who fail to register with authorities. She said judges should decide the length of sentences.

"They're the ones who know the circumstances. They know the person," Higgins said. "They're more intimately involved in a case rather than the those of us who sit this building and decide that we should be deciding a certain person's sentences. It's really not an appropriate thing for us to be doing. I think it should be people in that other branch of government."

The bill also reduces the length of time all inmates would serve in prison. Currently, offenders have to serve at least two-thirds of their sentence in prison or jail. The bill would shorten it to 60 percent. In other words, a person with a thirty year sentence would see their length of time in prison reduced from twenty years to eighteen years. Higgins said lawmakers have to make changes in light of a tough budget deficit.

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That doesn't appease county attorneys who say the bill takes a step backward.

"In my experience going back to the '80s, I've never seen a rush at the last moment to attempt to save lots of money by making radical changes to the criminal justice system," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Freeman said eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and prison time is a mistake. Even though the bill would apply only to inmates who are sentenced after July 1, Freeman said nearly every inmate already in prison would apply for the reduction. He said courts would force the state to make the change retroactive, meaning further reductions for inmates.

"It doesn't save any money," he said. "By the time we're done in the next two or three years litigating everyone's sentence again, it's going to be very expensive and there's no money in this bill for it."

Freeman said there are other ways for the state to save money. Among his suggestions is a study commission to determine which sentences should be reduced or extended. An official with the Minnesota County Attorneys Association said his organization has long supported a hike in the liquor tax to pay for public safety and corrections programs.

The Senate bill has other critics. Officials with Mothers Against Drunk Driving said repealing the mandatory minimum for felony DWIs will make the roads less safe. Lynn Goughler, with MADD Minnesota, said the felony DWI laws are working.

"I think that the laws in Minnesota for DWI have to be looked at very carefully and we can't just be changing DWI laws for the convenience of a state budget," Goughler said.

Goughler said she believes the state could save money by passing a law that requires drunk drivers to install a system that checks their blood alcohol level before they can start their cars. The engine won't start if the driver has been drinking.

The Public Safety Finance Committee debated and approved the bill on a divided voice vote. A full Senate vote is expected early next week. A companion bill in the Minnesota House cuts less to Corrections and Public Safety. It would rely on a cut in the daily amount spent on prisoners, freeze nonessential hiring and reduce sentences for low level drug offenses.