MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota authorities and defense attorneys are welcoming the federal government's plans to ease up on mandatory drug sentences, pointing out that the state already has one of the country's lowest incarceration rates because it's been practicing what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been proposing for some 30 years.
Grant Duwe, research director at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said the state reserves prison beds only for the most serious offenders. Low-level drug offenders end up with jail time and probation instead of mandatory prison sentences.
Minnesota is second only to Maine for the lowest imprisonment rate in the country, which Duwe said translates into lower costs. By comparison, Wisconsin spends $1.2 billion each year to house inmates compared to just $457 million in Minnesota.
As a first step, Holder announced in a speech Monday, he has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
Former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger praised Holder's effort to reduce the booming federal prison population. However, he said he's concerned that the attorney general's directive that each of the country's 94 U.S. attorneys develop local policies to implement his strategy will inevitably mean a lack of consistency.
Minnesota's outgoing U.S. attorney, B. Todd Jones, recently confirmed as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, had already been re-prioritizing his office's work by focusing less on some drug cases and taking on more fraud, terrorism and human trafficking cases, spokeswoman Jeanne Cooney said. This was partly due to budget constraints and the changing landscape of criminal activity, she said.
"This is an issue a lot of people in government and law enforcement were well aware of for years, but nobody wanted to discuss for fear of being labeled soft on crime. And we took some criticism from people who believed we should prosecute every crime," she said. "The attorney general's speech ... is so important because it will ignite national debate."
Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman said his office and many other local prosecutors aggressively divert first-time and low-level drug offenders to rehab programs rather than prison.
Defense attorney Peter Wold said he's seen case after case in federal court where a client gets convicted of a low-level role in a drug case, but the judge lacks discretion in sentencing because the charge called for severe mandatory prison time.
"Sentencing reform can go a long way," he said. "I think it's about time."
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