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.