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State's prison population remains among lowest in U.S.

published 1/16/2013
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Minnesota has the second lowest incarceration rate in the country because only the most high-risk offenders spend time behind bars.

That was one of many statistics shared by Corrections Department representatives with the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

There are roughly 9,500 inmates in state prisons, about 300 more than in 2007. However, there was a dramatic spike of about 3,000 more inmates between 2000 and 2007, largely due to an increase in methamphetamine offenders (74 in 2000 compared to 967 in 2007) and a felony DWI law that was enacted in 2002. The number of felony DWI offenders went from zero in 2002 to 624 in 2007. It has stayed about the same in recent years.

Grant Duwe, the department’s research director, said most offenses have held steady for five years; however, drug offenses — especially methamphetamines — have dropped. While person offenses have increased, the overall main increase since 2007 is for violating orders for protection, stalking or harassment.

Projections call for an overall increase of 1,500 more offenders in the next decade.

While other states deal with rising prison populations by releasing low-level offenders, Minnesota does not have that problem, largely because of sentencing guidelines and the use of community corrections, including supervised release and adult probation.

“Sentencing guidelines have taken the variables out of sentencing practice,” said Commissioner Tom Roy, who noted only Maine has a lower incarceration rate. “Sentencing guidelines have become a discipline that brought judges into conformity around certain offenses, all felony offenses, and it has made sentencing more predictable, prison population predictable, costs predictable. … Those states that don’t have sentencing guidelines are experiencing tremendous problems with prison populations and a disparity in sentencing, racially and in numbers.”

The department’s presentation is scheduled to continue at a future date.

“I hope that when we think about being smart on crime, that we really push the envelope a little bit and think about ways that we can stop people from going in there in the first place. That means prevention, that means intervention, that means ensuring those offenders that do get released are not part of that revolving door and going back into the system,” said Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul), the committee chairman.

- Mike Cook

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