Minnesota officials consider how to reduce prison populations

Stillwater prison
Inside a cell block where about 280 inmates live at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater.
Jennifer Simonson for MPR News 2014

A bipartisan bill aimed at reducing prison populations appears likely to become law and could affect some of the roughly 2,400 federal inmates housed in Minnesota. But a larger number of prisoners go through state courts and are housed in state facilities.

State data from the last fiscal year show an adult prison population of 9,849 plus, as of August of 2018, an average daily population in county jails of 7,295.

"Most of the reform that's going to make changes here and have an impact will be at the state levels," said DFLer Ron Latz, of St. Louis Park, the ranking minority member of the Minnesota Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy.

Latz said the 2016 Drug Sentencing Reform Act, a Minnesota law passed with bipartisan support, had "the goal of reducing the number of nonviolent and lower level drug cases that end up in prison."

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The law made a number of changes, including adding a new gross misdemeanor category for some first-time offenders. But a report issued in January by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission said that, at that time, the anticipated drop in demand for prison beds had not yet materialized.

Latz hopes the Minnesota Legislature will speed up the process of restoring voting rights to felons and make it easier for people to get criminal records expunged.

One aim of the criminal justice reform movement is to try to keep some people out of the system altogether.

During his unsuccessful campaign to become the Hennepin County Attorney, Mark Haase ran on a platform that called for significant changes to the cash bail system. He said studies show that people who can't make bail and stay locked up before trial are more likely to plead guilty, often because they just want to be able to get out and be with their families.

"Another thing that research is showing is that people who are held pre-trial are more likely to reoffend later," Haase said, adding that people often lose their jobs or housing after being locked up, and may have a hard time finding legal ways to make a living.

Racial disparities in Minnesota's prisons also drive support for change. According to the most recent data from the state Department of Corrections, Native Americans are less than 2 percent of the population but make up nearly 10 percent of the people in Minnesota prisons. African-Americans make up 35 percent of the state prison population though they make up less than 7 percent of the state's population.

Brian Fullman went to prison in 1992 in Illinois as a young adult. He grew up in Chicago and sold drugs as a teenager. While Fullman was serving a two-year sentence, he realized that he wasn't learning anything that would keep him from reoffending. He said Minnesota policymakers need to learn that a sentence needs to include quality time, not just quantity.

"You have to stop with this idea that if I give them more time, then they'll get. 'If I put them in a jail cell longer, then maybe they'll find clarity inside of that box.' That's the first thing you have to abandon," Fullman said.

Fullman works with ISAIAH, a faith-based advocacy group seeking to reduce the time people spend behind bars. He testified last week at a meeting of the sentencing guidelines commission to demonstrate to commissioners that rehabilitation is possible.

ISAIAH opposes a proposed change to the state guidelines which could extend sentences for some repeat offenders. The sentencing commission will also consider other changes to criminal history scores which could result in shorter sentences when it meets Thursday.