Updated: Dec. 31, 8:24 a.m. | Posted: Dec. 30, 5:50 p.m.
A new set of drug sentencing guidelines is scheduled to take effect in Minnesota next summer, in hopes of sending more addicts to treatment and reducing the state's prison population.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission voted 7-3 in favor of the changes. They reduce sentencing guidelines for several drug crimes, especially for first-time offenders. The amendments allow judges and prosecutors to use mitigating factors to reduce sentences for people who have addiction issues. They also add several new aggravating factors, such as selling drugs to a minor or possessing or selling drugs in a broad geographic area, which can lead to longer prison sentences.
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Lars Negstad with ISAIAH was pleased with the new guidelines.
"The Sentencing Guidelines Commission just took a big step in passing some reforms to Minnesota's overly harsh drug sentencing laws, which we regard as a step in the right direction," he said.
ISAIAH is a multifaith organization that lobbies for racial and economic equity. The group has been pushing for lesser prison sentences for low-level drug offenders. Negstad said he hopes the new guidelines stop punishing addiction with prison time, but rather, treat it.
"Too many addicts are getting locked up in prison and there's growing consensus and recognition that that doesn't serve public safety or the common good at all and it harms too many people," he said.
But some worry the new guidelines give dealers more breaks.
St. Paul police Sgt. Paul Ford was one of the three commissioners who voted against the amendments. He said the reduced sentences for all first-time drug offenders will encourage drug dealers, not deter them.
"I think they'll take notice of them. I think they'll be willing to take more risks. I think they see themselves as eventually doing less time in prison if they get caught," he said. "But also, the higher up the drug dealer food chain you go, they're more willing to exploit people that are doing the retail dealing for them, and they'll see that as less risk."
Isanti County Attorney Jeffrey Edblad, another commissioner who voted against the changes, thinks they could have the opposite effect on those pushing drug use in the state.
"The problem that I have as a prosecutor is sending a message that we are reducing sentences for those who are profiting from the addiction of others, those who are perpetuating the addiction of others, and those who are receiving an economic benefit from the addiction of others."
But State Supreme Court Justice Christopher Dietzen, who chairs the commission, said the changes make several improvements such as giving prosecutors tools to go after drug dealers and helping chemically dependent people get into treatment.
"That improves public safety, because those people are hopefully getting better, going into recovery and using less drugs," he said.
If the offenders get treatment, Dietzen said they'll commit fewer petty crimes to pay for their habit.
Over the long run, he said, that should help to reduce the state's prison population. He said the changes could cut the number of drug offenders in Minnesota prisons by more than 500 over the next decade.
The amended guidelines go into effect on Aug. 1, unless the Legislature intervenes.