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Slower growth expected in state’s increasing prison population

Minnesota’s adult prison population totaled 10,114 on July 1, 2016. That number was five inmates lower than one year prior, yet 905 inmates higher than on July 1, 2007. Going forward, the numbers are not expected to rise as fast as officials believed one year ago.

The House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee received an update on that topic and more during Wednesday’s Corrections Department overview. No action was taken.

“We’ve been on an upward trend, but we’re leveling out to a degree,” Commissioner Tom Roy said.

At this time last year, department officials expected the state’s prison population to continue on a steady climb to 11,292 by 2024. However, a new drug sentencing reform law aims to ensure drug dealers will spend significant time in prison, while addicts who may be more amenable to treatment or probation do not serve time. The change is expected to knock 875 inmates off that year 2024 total.

According to a report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Minnesota’s 6.3 percent prison population increase from 2010 to 2015 was the seventh-highest in the nation. The nation’s imprisonment rate fell 8.4 percent in that time.

WATCH Video of Wednesday's meeting of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee meeting

But, department officials note, the numbers can be deceiving because of a lower base. Minnesota’s 2015 rank of 196 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 population is the third-lowest in the country, behind Maine (132) and Massachusetts (179).

“Our numbers are small, but the percentage because of that is pretty high,” Roy said.

The department supervises more than 20,000 offenders on probation, supervised release or parole. It relies on community supervision for crimes that in many states would result in time behind bars. For example, Wisconsin’s 2015 state population was about 259,000 higher than Minnesota, yet it had more than twice as many inmates.

Among statistics provided by the department are:

  • Minnesota ranks 49th as a percent of General Fund spending on corrections at 2.7 percent (National average is 6.8 percent);
  • Minnesota 4,300 correctional staff employees comprise 5.2 percent of the state’s workforce, ranking 47th in the country (National average is 11 percent); and
  • For every $1 Minnesota spends on higher education, 17 cents is spent on corrections. That is the lowest ratio in the country. Roy said the numbers are reversed in some states.

Of the $1.08 billion department biennial budget, just 5 percent is for operations support. The remainder goes “directly to incarcerating, supervising and providing programming for offenders.”

In its effort to rehabilitate offenders and reduce their likelihood of future criminal activity, the department scores well.

A December 2016 report from Minnesota Management and Budget, found that “all nine of the supervision-associated services analyzed, the estimated benefits exceed costs for the five-year period of study. The benefit-cost ratios range from $11.40 for employment & job training to $1.80 for non-residential chemical dependency treatment.”

Maintenance needs

Minnesota has 11 prison facilities, including three built in the 1800s and one built in 1914. Two of those – Stillwater and St. Cloud — are classified as Level 4, one ranking below the maximum-security Oak Park Heights facility that was built in 1982. An Administration Department study, Roy said, showed the Corrections Department as the state agency with the most deferred maintenance needs.

“We have maintained those facilities, we’re proud of their conditions, but when you start maintaining a 100-year-old facility the infrastructure needs can be pretty significant,” Roy said.

Among the department’s bonding requests for 2016, and again this year, is $20 million for system-wide asset preservation, $19 million to improve the intake unit at the St. Cloud prison and $4 million to begin granite wall perimeter restoration at the same facility.

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