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Prison population exceeds facility capacity, working group learns

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy gives Prison Population Task Force members a presentation on the state’s prison population Sept. 25. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The state’s prison population currently exceeds facility capacity. That provided myriad ideas from legislators and others at the inaugural meeting of an informal working group.

No action was taken Friday by the Prison Population Task Force, which received an overview of the overcrowding and provided the more than 30 people gathered around the table — including about a dozen legislators — chances to express their thoughts.

“It’s a conversation that’s long overdue,” said Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls). “One size doesn’t fit all.”

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), who chairs the group with Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center), said the task force goal is to get in-depth information to help craft recommendations for the 2016 legislative session. He indicated a 10-week session that is scheduled to begin March 8 is not enough time to thoroughly vet the complexity of the issue.

Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy said that on July 1, 2015, the state housed 10,119 inmates, 560 more than capacity. The gap is forecast to increase to 1,202 inmates in seven years if everything stays the same in terms of statutes and sentencing. To help with the current situation, the Department of Corrections now leases 500 beds at county jails.

MORE: View the Department of Corrections inmate profile report

In 2014, Minnesota ranked fourth-lowest in the country with 194 incarcerated individuals per 100,000 population; however, the state had ranked as second-lowest within the previous five years. The national average is 471.

Even though total reported crimes dropped by 27 percent in the state between 2003 and 2013, according to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Minnesota’s prison population grew by 31 percent, fifth-fastest in the nation and far greater than the national average of 8 percent.

“Changes in statute led to significant population increase,” Roy said.

For example, in 2002 the state created a felony-level offense for someone having four or more felony DWI arrests within a 10-year lookback period. In July 2000, zero inmates were serving time for felony DWI; this summer the number was 683. “That’s nearly half a prison,” Roy said.

Felony-level domestic assault penalties were enhanced from 2005-07, which has resulted in an additional 270 inmates being incarcerated. A 170-inmate increase has been realized since failing to register as a predatory offender became a felony in 2000.

To address needs, the department has expanded its Faribault facility by 700 beds, increased the numbers in its Challenge Incarceration Program and added more than 1,200 beds through double-bunking and adding dormitories and other multiple-housing options.

Latz said the department plans to ask for $141 million in bonding proceeds next session, in part, to add 500 beds at the Rush City facility.

“We’ve got some really tough decisions to make,” said Cornish, who noted many of his constituents don’t have a problem with putting people in prison. “I’m interested in hearing all your input and recommendations.”

Among recommendations proffered were changes to the state sentencing guidelines, better treatment for addiction and mental health issues, reintroducing the state parole board and creating a board that could re-evaluate a sentence once a person is locked up to see, for example, if someone committing a similar crime elsewhere in the state received a similar sentence.

“I’d like to see us reduce the number of people incarcerated, not just look at more prisons,” said Rep. Jack Considine, Jr. (DFL-Mankato).

Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson) suggested a cost analysis to compare costs of expanding current facilities versus leasing the now vacant 1,500-bed Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton. Corrections Corporation of America, the prison’s owner, closed the facility in Feb. 2010 following declining demand from Minnesota and other states.

Both the bonding request and potential leasing are expected to be addressed when the task force next meets Oct. 21.

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