Lawmakers weigh overhaul of Minnesota drug laws

State Public Defender Bill Ward, right
State Public Defender Bill Ward, right, discusses a plan that would reduce some drug crime penalties and enhance others at a press conference Friday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The Minnesota Legislature will consider the most-sweeping changes in a quarter century to the state's drug laws — a compromise package of sentencing revisions that would ease penalties for low-level users and toughen them for big-time dealers.

Police, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys on Friday all endorsed the changes aimed at getting the law to better distinguish between addicts and pushers. Legislators, however, have little time left in their election-year session and a lot of ramifications to consider before a final vote.

Last year, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission rewrote presumptive penalties for several drug offenses so people would spend less time in prison or receive probation. The revisions were to take effect in August unless a law was passed to stop them.

That deadline set in motion serious negotiations among those long resistant to significant changes and those thinking they were overdue.

"I believe we have avoided what would have been, in my opinion, a big disaster," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who helped write the product outlined Friday at a Capitol news conference. "If we had allowed the Sentencing Guidelines Commission to go into effect on Aug. 1, that would have been the greatest prison discount of all time. And that reform would have been focused solely on prison discount for drug dealers."

Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts, who helped represent the state's police departments in the talks, said the compromise meets the chiefs' goal "to stay tough, to maintain sentences on drug dealers. Our position was no deals for drug dealers."

The proposal establishes a new aggravated control substance crime that would send sellers to prison for more than five years, longer if they had a gun, were acting on behalf of a gang or could be considered a kingpin. It also reduces the amount of marijuana someone can sell before being hit with a more severe charge.

On the flip side, first offenses for the lowest degree of drug possession crimes would be classified as gross misdemeanors rather than felonies. Judges would have more discretion to send people to diversion programs for low-level offenses rather than a lockup.

State Public Defender Bill Ward said he's seen too many clients go to prison over an addiction.

The current system says, "'Here's your one chance. If you don't take it you're going to prison.' We've solved nothing over the past 30 years and in fact we've made things worse," Ward said, noting that the law doesn't demand "people who are drinking to stop tomorrow."

Gov. Mark Dayton said he's been briefed on the sentencing agreement and would be inclined to sign a bill if it reached him.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Ron Latz, co-leader of a task force looking at overcrowded prisons, estimated that the drug sentencing changes could ultimately free up 600 beds or more.

Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, added that he'll be trying to shepherd the proposal through the Senate and at the same time trying to secure more money for chemical dependency programs.

The money part will be tricky. And there still could be uneasiness about backing off of some sentences just as lawmakers stand for reelection.

House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Chair Tony Cornish has voiced support for the sentencing plan after objecting to the Sentencing Guidelines Commission revisions.

"I don't know if I would say if I like these proposals," said Cornish, R-Vernon Center. "I would say I would agree to them. I don't think anyone likes them."