The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Editorials

March 4, 2014

Our View: Reform drug sentencing

Why it matters The drug crime sentencing system in Minnesota creates unequal justice.

Nobody wants a drug dealer selling to kids to be treated with kid gloves, but it’s becoming increasingly clear the Minnesota drug sentencing system has created unequal justice.

An in-depth report by The Star Tribune that examined 21,000 drug sentencing cases between 2007 and 2012 showed that sentencing for drug crimes varied widely by county and by judge in Minnesota.

While a Hennepin County judge sentenced a man convicted of first-degree drug sale and possession to less than a year in the workhouse, a woman in Rochester got three years for the same offense. She noted to the newspaper that sentence was just one year less than the sentence of the man convicted of raping her.

There also appears to be little difference in sentences based on the amount of drugs involved. The lowest sentence, for example, for 10 grams of cocaine is the same as an unlimited amount, according to the newspaper.

The report said those convicted in far western Minnesota judicial districts would have a 77 percent chance of getting the toughest sentence, while those convicted in Hennepin County have just a 27 percent chance.

And some judges depart from the sentencing guidelines more than 50 percent of the time, while others don’t depart at all. Most of those departures lower sentences as judges say the sentences don’t fit the crimes.

The sentencing also varies by county. In Blue Earth County, for example, the recommended sentence for first- and second-degree drug crimes is applied 30 to 40 percent of the time. In Nicollet County, it is applied only 20-30 percent of the time. The newspaper’s research suggests drug sentences are tougher in rural counties.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has wrestled with drug sentences a number of times. Many judges argue that sentencing guidelines for minor drug offenses are too harsh and those convicted end up in prison when a drug rehabilitation program would be more suitable.

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