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Solutions remain evasive for Prison Population Task Force

House Photography file photo

Questions were plentiful throughout the duration of the Prison Population Task Force that began last fall. Answers not so much.

That continued at the group’s final meeting Wednesday.

Co-chaired by Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center) and Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), the goal of the informal group was to get in-depth information to help craft recommendations for the 2016 legislative session to deal with prison overcrowding.

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.

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

While no action was taken before the legislative session begins next Tuesday, solutions from legislators and other interested parties were plentiful.

“We now have to put together a comprehensive approach to address the prison population,” said Rep. JoAnn Ward (DFL-Woodbury).

Calling the thoughts “good ideas to chew on,” Cornish urged members to rein in expectations that much can be accomplished before the Legislature must constitutionally adjourn by May 23. For one, he noted the House may be reluctant to spend additional money on corrections in what is traditionally a non-budget year.

Latz was more optimistic, saying, “There’s room within our current system and structure to make changes.”

Latz presented 16 ideas for consideration, including funding the governor’s bonding request for 75 additional beds for the Challenge Incarceration Program at the Togo and Willow River correctional facilities and appropriating more money to the Corrections Department for increased mental health and chemical dependency treatment services.

“I believe that more must be done to not only reduce the number of Minnesotans incarcerated, but also to provide a more fair sentencing structure and opportunities to help offenders be successful in their communities upon release,” Latz said.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of St. Thomas law professor, urged a holistic approach to treating inmates with mental health issues. “Prison should not be the place for these people.”

A recent report by the Sentencing Guidelines Commission recommended, in part, reducing possession of a trace amount of a controlled substance from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.

If the Legislature fails to act, the changes will take effect Aug. 1, 2016.

Cornish said the recommendations should not be accepted. “There’s a number of people upset that they went too far.”

Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield) supports legislative action. “We should not just walk away and say, ‘I had nothing to do with it.’”

Many task force members indicated support for reducing 5th-degree controlled substance crimes from a felony to a gross misdemeanor. Among their arguments is it has the potential to save prison beds while also not putting a felony on someone’s record that can hurt the individual when they seek employment or housing.

“The focus needs to be on helping people get their lives back,” said Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake).

Other ideas offered include:

  • elimination of mandatory minimum drug sentences;
  • expanding the early release program for non-violent drug offenders;
  • instituting an earned time program for prison sentences;
  • potentially reinstating the parole board; and
  • before agreeing to build any space for new prison beds, the empty prison in Appleton should be considered.

The 1,500-bed Prairie Correctional Facility was closed by its owner, Corrections Corporation of America, in February 2010 following declining demand from Minnesota and other states. However, the prison has been maintained since its closure. A plan has been offered whereby CCA would own the facility, but the state would handle operations.

“Maybe it’d be better to rent until a number of reforms can be enacted to reduce the number of inmates,” said Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson). 

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