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Task force hears pair of ideas to help address state's excess prison population

Potential answers to the state’s overcrowded prison system are numerous. Bricks and mortar solutions were key components of Wednesday’s meeting of the Prison Population Task Force.

On July 1, 2015, the state housed 10,119 inmates, 560 more than capacity. The gap is forecast to exceed 1,200 inmates by 2022 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

A plan proffered by the department would expand its Rush City facility by 500 units. The $141.5 million price tag would be bonded for in the 2016 session.

Deputy Commissioner Terry Carlson said the facility currently holds 1,018 inmates, and that two additional housing units would provide more offenders with treatment, educational and job training opportunities. Corrections officials indicate that 90 percent of offenders have treatment needs that are not addressed in county jails.

Additionally, the department seeks $5 million to renovate a vacant health services building at its Lino Lakes facility into a 60-bed housing unit. 

Both those may not be needed if another option were to come to fruition.

[WATCH: Full video of Wednesday’s Prison Population Task Force hearing]

Sitting vacant in Appleton is the 1,500-bed Prairie Correctional Facility that was closed by its owner, Corrections Corporation of America, in Feb. 2010 following declining demand from Minnesota and other states.

Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie said reopening the facility would provide an opportunity to economically enhance an area where unemployment exceeds 8 percent while solving the Corrections Department population problem.

CCA has maintained the prison since its closure, partially in hopes of being needed for federal inmates. As proposed, the plan calls for the Corrections Department to lease and operate the facility.

In addition to lease costs, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy said it would cost about $50 million a year to operate the Appleton facility; whereas the Rush City expansion would require an additional $15 million annually for operations after the $141.5 million for construction.

No action was taken, but Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center) said he’s “open-minded” about the idea, while Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) spoke against any prison privatization.

“I’m anti-private prison,” added Rep. Dan Schoen (DFL-St. Paul Park), “but it could be a solution to our current need.”

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), who co-chairs the task force with Cornish, wonders if there are other things that can be done to get the state past the current overcrowding situation. As examples, he mentioned reducing the time inmates must serve in prison before being let out on supervised release, expanding the Challenge Incarceration Program or reinstating the parole board.

Racial issues

As part of a presentation about the state’s sentencing guidelines, the task force looked at racial imprisonment disparities.

Nate Reitz, executive director of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, said that as of July 2014, 6 percent of Minnesota residents were black, yet blacks made up 26 percent of the state’s felony offenders. The percentages were 82 and 58 for whites.

Yet, he said, when looking at the ratio of minority imprisonment rates compared to whites, the gap has closed in the past 17 years largely because of an increased white imprisonment rate.

In 1998, the ratio that indicates the times higher for blacks than the white imprisonment rate was approximately 20:1. Now it is just under 10:1. The Hispanic ratio has dropped to about 2:1, and the American Indian ratio is up slightly to 11.7:1.

There is something more going on than just statutory changes if one is 10 or more times higher than whites, Latz said. The group also took no action on this issue.

Up next

The informal task force, which hopes to get in-depth information to help craft recommendations for the 2016 legislative session, is next scheduled to meet Nov. 18.

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