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August 9, 2022

8/11/2016 5:51:00 PM
New drug offender sentencing guidelines to be monitored

The first major changes to drug offender sentencing in 30 some years went into effect last week.   Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter followed the last legislative session closely as lawmakers navigated controversial drug offense sentencing guideline changes.

The revisions had been recommended by the state sentencing guidelines commission, but lawmakers found them to be controversial.   Review was centered in the MN House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy Committee where one of Chisago County’s two state House members Rep. Brian Johnson, is co-chair.

County Attorney Reiter commented in a recent interview that those involved tried to do a “healthy analysis” first, of what’s actually happening with marijuana, narcotics, meth, cocaine sentencing practices.  “We wanted to understand who the offenders are and who needs to be in jail,” she explains.  
The guidelines revisions don’t cover heroin offenses.

A press release from the county attorneys’s association reported that much of what was advocated for the guidelines are now contained in the new sentencing grid.  The office of the state public defender noted in prepared statements that some of the common defense concerns were resolved too.

Reached at the county fair, where he had a date with the Young Life dunk tank, State Rep. Johnson,  remarked that the revisions ended up containing something for everybody to dislike.  In political terms that means a compromise was reached.  

Rep. Johnson said the legislature has required reports to lawmakers on the sentencing changes impacts and the lawmakers will continue to monitor this.  

Sentencing guideline revisions are not retro-active. If you were already in the system for a drug related offense before August 1, the former sentencing grid applies to the disposition of your case.

If you were arrested and charged after Monday last week, the revised guidelines are in effect.

More of an art than a science, developing a guideline for incarcerating drug offenders saw lots of input by the appointed commission and at the capitol in St. Paul.  

The guidelines commission hoped to target resources towards incarcerating suspects at the top of the drug supply/sales chain, rather than fill prisons with low level offenders who really need treatment.  

Polls of Minnesotans also showed  strong support for more opportunity for treatment and intervention versus non-violent offenders being locked up, the commission noted.
Rep. Johnson said one of his concerns was the recommended loosening of sentences at the lesser end of offenses (fifth degree.) He sees this as having the net effect of eliminating one of law enforcement’s tools.  

The possibility of a arrestee facing serious penalties can be leveraged for cooperation when dealing with a trace amount offender, Rep. Johnson explained.  

It was reported during House review of the guidelines that 501 fifth degree drug offenders were in the state prisons and the economic benefit of revising sentencing was unavoidable.

Supporters testified and Dept of Corrections data  showed revising drug offenders sentences would empty an estimated 700 prison beds, occupied by non-violent offenders.   The legislature was also told in committee testimony the reforms would save $12 million annually.

Chisago County Attorney Reiter reports the county had 93 felony drug possession and sales cases in 2015 that under the revised grid, would become gross misdemeanors.
Realizing that some cases carryover and are not resolved until the following year-- in 2014 79 cases could have been affected.

What the new guidelines include:
Factors affecting lengths of sentences now include considering if offenses were in more than one county, or whether firearms are involved or if the offense was done to benefit a gang.  
The minimum quantities of some types of substances triggering certain sentences have been revised.
For example:
~ First degree narcotic sale quantity goes from 10 to 17 grams.  First degree narcotice possession goes to 50 grams from the current 20 grams.
~ Third degree controlled substance possession threshhold goes to 10 grams from three grams.  In offenses where sale of the substance happened, any amount is imposed.
Instances when a judge is authorized to apply a downward departure (reducing or staying a sentence)have also been finessed.

Minnesota County Attorney Assoc. President Mark Ostrem stated that “the top legislative priority” in last session was,  “...reaching agreement with our law enforcement partners and defense interests on critical drug reform measures.”  

The catchy slogan “no deals for dealers” was coined by Bloomington’s  chief of police, who told a House committee that law enforcement is equally interested in working on revising the system.  Offenders suffering from addiction benefit from needed common sense reform, but, the kingpins are going to be held accountable, the chief explained.
Rep. Johnson told the Press the hard part is knowing which lower level offenders will benefit from treatment and which will just game the system.

Local authority was also enhanced under the guidelines reforms. Chisago County Attorney Reiter said the exclusive jurisdiction authority will grant County Attorneys discretion in determining if trace (fifth degree) amounts are prosecuted.

Also coming out of the last legislative session was some new money for special populations law enforcement is encountering.  There’s $750,000 in fiscal year 2017 for the state Department of Corrections to provide 70 new (CD) Chemical Dependency/mental health beds. Grants will also be available to local units of government (police departments and jails) and non-profits who apply for funding to establish and operate CD and treatment programs  reducing repeat drug related offenses.  

The grants are earmarked for $488,000 total in 2017 and $461,000 annually after.   

Lawmakers intended that savings in the state system will fund the account, according to an end of session summary report from the MN House Public Information Services.

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