The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 4, 2014

Our View: Reform drug sentencing

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

The Mankato Free Press

---- — 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.

There have been at least a couple of initiatives to lower the recommended drug sentencing guidelines at the state level, but each time law enforcement and the county attorneys association has thwarted the effort. Drug sentences were increased greatly in the early 1980s when the crack cocaine epidemic surfaced.

Law enforcement argues the tougher sentences for even minor crimes give them leverage to strike plea deals and get minor offenders to testify against bigger drug dealers. They also hear from neighborhood groups that argue local drug dealers are arrested one day and back on the street in a day or a week.

The state also has a growing population of drug offenders taking up costly prison space, and prison officials note they are currently renting jail space for about 300 drug offenders at $55 a day.

Prosecutors have a lot of leeway in how they approach plea deals and lowering some sentencing guidelines for minor offenses seems like it would have a minimal impact. And at some point, repeat offenders who show up in neighborhoods will face tougher sentences.

Other states also have begun to reduce the harsh sentences for minor drug crimes as prison costs become a real drain on budgets and some of the illicit drug epidemics that prompted higher sentences years ago have become less prevalent.

Giving judges discretion in sentencing has merit and that authority shouldn’t be diluted, but the data now suggest that even judges are saying the sentences should be lower. That should be a signal to the Sentencing Guidelines Commission to open the discussion again.

The bigger issue, however, is the inequality in justice created by the system. It’s hard to believe drug users and dealers in outstate Minnesota are more dangerous and deserving of more prison time than those in the metro area.

Already, state lawmakers are consider changes to the sentencing guidelines. The head of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission told a House judiciary committee that the differences in sentencing brought to light by the newspaper were an “indicator that something is wrong somewhere.”

We would agree. The Legislature and the commission need to reform the sentencing guidelines so we can be confidant justice is served equally.