With Minnesota prisons full, panel seeks answers

Tom Roy, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and Terry Carlson, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, testify before a task force studying the prison population. Tom Scheck | MPR News

A task force of state lawmakers, public safety officials and criminal justice professionals is studying ways to handle Minnesota’s growing prison population.

The state Corrections Department says prisons are full. The state is paying county jails to house 516 inmates because space is so tight.

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told the task force Friday he wants the Legislature to spend $141 million to build a new prison housing unit in Rush City to meet demand.

"So lots of the states that have shown smaller growth rates have been reducing prison populations by removing the low hanging fruit in those states,” Roy said. “Minnesota removed the low hanging fruit years and years and years ago."

Some task force members wondered whether the state should implement lighter prison sentences or increase funding for chemical and mental health treatment to help address the problem.

“There are some people who are a long term threat to public safety,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “But I also think there’s a substantial portion of those who are behind bars that we can deal with more effectively and less expensively.”

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But that could be a tricky balance especially with every seat in the Legislature on the ballot in 2016. Changes in criminal justice laws sometimes end up as a campaign issue – especially when a lawmakers could appear to be soft on crime.

Republicans in the Minnesota House didn’t seem convinced that reducing prison sentences for what many have called “low level crimes” is a viable option.

“It’s a low level crime until they break into your house,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. “It’s a low level methamphetamine crime until they are supporting their habit by stealing your identity or stealing thousands of dollars in checks in your name and your credit is ruined.”

One other option discussed involves leasing space at an empty prison in Appleton, Minn. Swift County officials are urging the Dayton Administration and the Legislature to enter a contract with the Corrections Corporation of America, which owns the prison.

“If the Department of Corrections is going to build or make additional prison space available, we’d like to see it in this currently vacant facility rather than making a $141 million capital investment,” said Swift County Administrator Mike Pogge-Weaver.

Pogge-Weaver also said it makes sense to lease prison space if the goal of the task force is to reduce the overall prison population. But the current trend lines show Minnesota’s prison population increasing by 6 percent between 2015 and 2022 leaving some to wonder if building new units or a new prison is a better option.

“If the long-term trend lines don’t change, it might be cheaper to buy than to lease,” said Latz.

Leasing the Appleton prison could also present other political problems. Even though Swift County officials are lobbying the Legislature to run the facility with state employees, labor unions have opposed any expansion at Appleton.

Others say the state should not enter into a contract with a private company that makes money off of housing inmates.