Faced with rising costs and overcrowded prisons, states and some at the federal level are revisiting get-tough-on crime statutes. In Minnesota, a bill has been filed to cut prison sentences to save money.
Is this the right idea? I’m live-blogging the Midmorning broadcast on the subject. Kerri Miller’s guests are Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Brian Walsh, senior legal research fellow at the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation. He’s the author of a January paper on criminal law reform.
He was featured in an NPR story on the subject last month.
So let’s have an online conversation on the subject. Use the comments section below.
9:09 a.m. - Perusing various newspapers, I see Arizona is kicking this around. One of the proposed cuts is to treatment programs for sex offenders. That sounds a little like the strategy — apparently — in these parts not to fill potholes. Is that really the way to approach this?
9:11 a.m. – Mike Freeman says Minnesota spends the second-lowest amount on the penal system in the country. He also says the incarceration rate is second-lowest.
9:11 a.m. - The big increase in the prison system is drug offenders. Walsh focuses on the federal level and says “a number of people” are incarcerated for relatively small amounts of drugs. But, he says, “the right people are in prison for the right reasons.”
9:13 a.m. – Here’s an interesting chart on prison population. Our crime rate is slightly below the national average, but the incarceration rate and taxpayer cost is much lower than the national rate.
9:14 a.m. – Attorney Freeman says there is a relationship between tougher sentencing and a reduction in crime. He says felony DWIs are down. Mr. Walsh says that’s the way things should be done — data driven. Increasing sentences just because “you’re mad” doesn’t make any sense, he says.
9:17 a.m. -Freeman says the federal system’s mandatory drug minimum sentence is “outrageous,” and that “Congress has gone overboard.” But, he says, that’s not the way we do things in Minnesota. Walsh agrees. He says “it sounds very good to the public” to have tougher sentencing. But he suggests penal philosophy is more often guided by politics. Congress won’t vote against a tougher sentencing bill because they don’t want to be “soft on crime.” Unfortunately, he didn’t provide a breakdown of who is being “overpunished.”
9:19 a.m. – Atty. Freeman, of course, comes from a world of politics, having served in the Minnesota Senate. He says he was “pushed by the other party” when sentencing and crime bills came up. “But that era ran out in the ’90s,” he said. He applauds programs for substance abusers as a way to keep people with low-level drug problems out of prison.
Tangent time: Here’s a 2005 Department of Corrections report on the Minnesota prison population.
9:22 a.m. - A caller says that attitudes toward locking up people with drug problems changed when the meth epidemic started. It’s a white-person drug. When crack cocaine — an African American drug in perception — was the main problem, there were more efforts to send people with drug problems off to prison.
9:25 a.m. – Walsh says most conservatives believe the 100:1 ratio (racial breakdown on drug prosecutions) was out of line. “Those who were calling for very stiff penalties on crack in the ’80s were those who were more closely associated with the left,” he said. “The Black Caucus was very involved in that.”
9:27 a.m. – Caller asks about Obama emphasis on treatment rather than prison. Who should administer it? “We need treatment in home communities for diversion,” Freeman said. He says his office will charge someone with crack, but they’ll encourage them to attend programs before going to prison.” He says even for the sellers who go to prison, there are good programs in prison for cleaning up. “The problem is the Legislature hasn’t appropriated enough money,” he said.
“That’s really unwise,” he said of the discussion at the Legislature for more cuts.
9:30 a.m. – Walsh says the focus needs to be on what works. He highlights the work of a Missouri prison official. Background on that is in this article.
9:38 a.m. – Just talking among ourselves here during the news break, Atty. Freeman just said that one of the most rapidly growing prosecution is domestic strangulation, which is a felony. Here’s a 2007 report on the impact of Minnesota’s domestic strangulation law.
9:40 a.m. – I’m listening to Atty. Freeman and Kerri talk about mandatory sentences for sex offenders who fail to register. Does mandatory minimum sentencing work? This article in TIME says the practice has stalled prison and criminal justice system reform.
9:48 a.m. – There’s a discussion here about the Appleton prison, which is a privately run prison. If I recall correctly, however, Appleton had a hard time getting prisoners. At one point it had to get prisoners from Puerto Rico.
9:51 a.m. – I just read several of the comments below on the air, including the need to concentrate on what happens when people get out of prison. Atty. Freeman says we ought to grant Certificates of Good Conduct to people who have been out and have not committed another offense. He says private employers shy away from people with a criminal past, even if people are simply charged and never convicted.
9:54 a.m. – One thing we haven’t talked about is the actual war that’s taking place in Mexico. That’s spilling over to the U.S. What will be the effect here? I just read an AP story that’s being distributed for the weekend papers:
But the cartels have also brought the fight to us. In 230 U.S. cities, the organizations maintain distribution hubs or supply drugs to local distributors, the federal government reports. Places like Miami and other longtime transportation points along the Southwest border. But also Twin Falls, Idaho. Billings, Mont. Wichita, Kan. St. Louis. Milwaukee.
9:58 a.m. – Freeman, by the way, says he’s done with statewide politics. He’s run for governor twice.