2016 will see many changes to the state’s drug laws. Among them, reduced sentences and an increased focus on drug treatment and diversion programs. These changes are intended to reduce the recidivism rate in the state for drug crime convictions. These amended guidelines will go into effect on August 1, 2016.
MSGC Votes for New Sentencing Guidelines
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC) has voted in favor of reducing sentencing guidelines for a variety of drug crimes. These changes will have the greatest impact on first-time offenders. These changes will impact both those who are found in possession of drugs, and those convicted of dealing drugs. Among the changes, the state will now allow judges and prosecutors to consider mitigating factors when determining whether to reduce a sentence.
These mitigating factors include:
- Addiction to Drugs
- Criminal Record
- Type of Offense
- Mental/Physical Illness
Conversely, the state is going to crack down on those who sell drugs to minors, or purposefully distribute and sell drugs over a broad geographic area. Individuals convicted of these crimes will face longer sentences.
Under the previous sentencing guidelines, individuals typically received 86-month sentences for first-time offenses. Under the new guidelines, that has been reduced to 65-months. Further, first-time offenders convicted of dealing drugs may receive sentences as short as 48-months. For all offenders, judges will have the discretion to determine whether prison or drug diversion programs are the most appropriate punishment.
Reasoning for the Changes
One of the objectives of the new sentencing guidelines is to make sentences more uniform throughout the state. Currently, individuals convicted of drug crimes by drug courts in the Twin Cities area can expect lighter sentences than those convicted in other cities in Minnesota. According to the MSGC, judges outside the Twin Cities area deviated from sentencing guidelines in 14 to 18% of cases. This is roughly twice as much as those within the Twin Cities region. As such, the MSGC is encouraging courts throughout the state to follow the new guidelines closely. It is their belief that these new guidelines will make the administration of justice more uniform and fair.
Drug Convictions & Incarceration in Minnesota
From 1995 to 2005, the number of inmates imprisoned for drug crimes in Minnesota tripled. By 2014, nearly 20% of all incarcerations were for drug crimes. Among the most serious were those convicted of meth offenses. In an effort to counter rising incarceration rates, the legislature regulated the sale of ingredients used to make methamphetamine. The result was a decrease in the number of convictions for methamphetamine production by 2010. That year only 900 beds were allocated for individuals imprisoned for these crimes.
However, this trend was short lived. Two years ago, the number of beds allocated for methamphetamine convictions reached 1,735. This is the highest it has been in the past decade. This sharp increase is one of the reasons that the MSGC decided to amend their sentencing guidelines. Upon review, it was determined that inmates who complete drug treatment programs were 4 to 9% less likely to return to using or selling the drug.
Highlighting the Need for Treatment
The Department of Corrections is taking note of these statistics. In 2014, resources were available to treat only a fraction of those incarcerated for drug crimes. That year, only 3,900 newly convicted inmates qualified for drug treatment programs whereas statistics indicated nearly 10,000 inmates would have benefited.
Drug treatment programs feature:
- Segregation from the general prison population
- Intensive therapy
- Professional counseling
- Medically assisted detoxification
- Continual monitoring of an inmate’s status and progress.
In Minnesota, individuals can be convicted of first-degree drug possession if they possess 100 kg of marijuana, 500 grams of hallucinogens, or 25 grams of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Those arrested with 50 kg of marijuana, 50 grams of hallucinogens, or 6 grams of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine can be convicted of second-degree drug possession. Those arrested with smaller quantities can be convicted of third, fourth, or fifth-degree possession. These guidelines have not changed and it does not appear that the state will reduce these limits anytime soon.
Reducing Other Crimes
In addition to reducing the number of individuals convicted of drug crimes, it’s believed the changes to these sentencing guidelines will have a positive impact across the board. That’s because many individuals convicted of drug crimes are also convicted for petty theft crimes. These crimes are committed by individuals seeking to finance their drug habit. It’s believed that better diversion and treatment options will reduce the overall crime rate.
These changes are scheduled to become law on August 1st. However, the legislature may intervene before then. Thus, it is important for anyone facing a drug charge to contact a drug lawyer in Minneapolis. That is the best way to stay abreast of these changes and any changes to Minnesota’s drug laws that might occur over the coming months.