By Chris Steller
A legislative task force is taking a hard look at how to deal with an excess of inmates in state prisons — whether by policies and laws or bricks and mortar, or some combination.
Up for discussion Oct. 21 by the Prison Population Task Force: adjusting sentencing guidelines or probation practices, building more jail cells or leasing an empty private prison in Appleton.
The backdrop for the discussion is a nationwide movement — even in the most conservative, law-and-order states — to reduce the nation’s prison population.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections is asking the Legislature for $141.5 million in bonding to expand the state prison in Rush City by 167,000 square feet and 500 beds. Five hundred is also the number by which the department says its current inmate population exceeds state prisons’ bed capacity. And the department expects the state’s total prison population to increase by nearly 650 over the next seven years.
After a presentation on the Rush City proposal, the task force heard about a facilities alternative that would not require new construction: reopening Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, built by Corrections Corporation of America. Under the plan, the Department of Corrections would lease the facility from CCA. Staff would be state employees except for a CCA maintenance crew.
Several task force members, including Sens. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, said they liked the idea as a short-term solution to the prison-bed shortfall without the expense of taking on new construction.
Others, including Reps. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, and Debra Hillstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said they didn’t support the plan and opposed privately built prisons. Schoen, who said he had roots in the area, also expressed concern about the region taking another economic hit if inmate populations dip and the state ends the lease.
Among testifiers, local officials were front and center before the task force in favor of the lease plan as a boost for a region that needs economic development but also has the capacity to support a large state-run facility.
Appleton Mayor Chadwick Syltie said in an interview after the meeting that his city and the surrounding area sorely missed the 350 jobs that left when CCA closed the prison in 2010. Most laid-off CCA workers had to move away to find other jobs, he said.
After earlier efforts to reopen the prison proved to be false starts, Swift County Commissioner Gary Hendrickx said in an interview, local governments are trying something new by hiring a PR firm, Goff Public, to help push the idea.
The task force also took up topics such as the state’s sentencing guidelines system — including mandatory minimum sentences (and judges’ departures from them), probation violations, racial disparities in prison population, and the profile of people in prison for drug crimes.
Legislative or policy moves in any of those areas could help slow the prison population increase. An example: reducing the length of mandatory sentences under the state’s sentencing guidelines.
Reitz was questioned by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, about data showing that less than half of people convicted of illegally possessing a firearm receive the state mandatory sentence.
“There’s an argument to be made that this is a judicial vote against the mandatory minimum,” Reitz said. “That the judiciary is saying this is not appropriate. Again, departures are supposed to be for those extraordinary cases. If the departure rate or noncompliance rate is more than 50 percent … is this something that the judiciary doesn’t believe that the crime is this severe?”
The trend at the Capitol may be in a different direction.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, referenced a recent spate of gun killings in the Twin Cities in predicting the Legislature would take up the issue of sentences for crimes involving firearms. “I’ll just bet that there’s going to be a number of gun bills forwarded this session,” he said. “With what’s going on in Minneapolis and St. Paul and [Minneapolis] Police Chief [Janeé] Harteau saying we need to put down the guns, I’ll bet you there’s going to be some bills calling for higher mandatories on any guns in commission or possession or use of a firearm in a crime.”
James Franklin, director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, said, “We are fed up. The departure rate is deplorable. If you have a statute that says you get three or five years, why are you not implementing it? … We intend to make an issue of [it].”
Reitz noted that higher compliance rates would mean even more inmates in prison beds.
In attendance Oct. 21 and at the task force’s meeting in September was Toya Woodland, an intern at ISAIAH, a faith-based group that opposes building more prisons or prison cells. She said in an interview she is for sentencing reform and against mass incarceration for crimes that are nonviolent. “We need to restore families not destroy them [through imprisonment],” she said. ISAIAH, which held a vigil the morning of the task force meeting, also promotes early childhood education and juvenile programs to keep youths out of jail.
The Prison Population Task Force co-chairs are Cornish, who heads the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Members of the task force include eight state senators (six of them from the eight-member Senate Judiciary Committee), six state representatives (all from the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention committee), and 18 people from state agencies, advocacy groups or criminal justice professional organizations.