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Minnesota’s prison overcrowding issue

Prison overcrowding is a vast issue in Minnesota.  With many policymakers insistent on the need for stricter sentencing and no tolerance for multiple-offense inmates, state prisons are bursting at the seams.  Instead of reducing or eliminating prison terms for many non-violent inmates, especially those incarcerated for fraud and other white collar crimes, prisons are slowly releasing inmates in early release programs. However, any space the early releases make available is almost immediately occupied by new inmates, creating a perpetual cycle that is proving difficult to break.

A temporary solution 

For now, many governments are focused on finding temporary solutions to help alleviate the problem as quickly as possible. Sherburne County is relieving some of the pressure that the state’s prisons are experiencing by housing up to 150 Department of Corrections inmates within its county jail. In addition to this, they also house 275 federal inmates.


Such a solution is not always possible, however, and may not be beneficial to the inmates. Although often used interchangeably, the terms “jail” and “prison” actually refer to two significantly different forms of incarceration. Jails are used to temporarily hold alleged offenders at the county level during initial processing, trials, appeals, sentencing, for short sentence terms lasting no more than one year, and to house individuals awaiting transfer to a state facility. Conversely, prisons are designed for long-term housing and are equipped to offer some of the following programs:

  • Rehabilitation plans
  • Vocational training and educational curriculum
  • Psychiatric and drug treatment
  • Community service 

These programs are necessary for the rehabilitation and reintegration of people back into normal communities. Few jails have the resources or ability to provide these services to inmates.

National overcrowding

The issue is not localized to Minnesota.  According to the Congressional Research Service, the increase in prison populations across the nation is unprecedented. It reports that the number of inmates has increased from 25,000 in fiscal year 1980 to 219,000 in fiscal year 2012, bringing the overall federal prison system to 139 percent of capacity, with some facilities operating as high as 155 percent of capacity.

These increased headcounts can cause more than simple boarding issues.  In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California was violating prison inmates’ constitutional rights by not providing them with adequate medical care due to overcrowding issues, and ordered the state to reduce its prison population. 112 deaths over two years acted as the catalyst for the lawsuit, with the state fully admitting that the deaths were due to the inmates’ routine medical needs being unmet.

A state’s obligations

The Supreme Court’s ruling clearly shows that states have the responsibility to provide proper housing and medical care for inmates.  While Minnesota prisons are taking temporary action by housing people in jails, policymakers should address the underlying cause of overpopulation, and see where laws can be altered to prevent the situation from escalating any further.

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

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