ST PAUL — The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota is proposing criminal justice reforms that they say could cut the state's prison populations by more than half by 2025, and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
According to ACLU-MN's Blueprint for Smart Justice Report, released on Thursday, Minnesota has one of the lowest prison populations in the country, at nearly 10,000 inmates. But "our justice system is far from perfect," the nonpartisan civil liberties litigation group said in a Thursday news release.
The state imprisonment rate dropped nationwide by 7% between 2000 and 2016, ACLU-MN said. Meanwhile, Minnesota's imprisonment rate increased by 51%, and has trended upward since 1998.
Minnesota's felony sentences peaked in 2017, topping 18,000 people — a 69% rise from 2001. ACLU-MN said this increase could be due to increased drug convictions, which more than doubled during these years.
ACLU-MN gave several recommendations for criminal justice reform in the report, which they said could cut Minnesota's prison population from 10,000 to less than 5,000 by 2025. They said the corrections costs saved, which they estimated to top $411 million, could be put toward schools or services to help prevent future crime.
Among several factors for the recent swell in prison population, ACLU-MN pointed to Minnesota's probation practices. In a state where judges have near-total control on felons' probation sentences — sometimes leading to decades-long sentences, and wide variation between judicial districts — 40% of prison admissions in 2018 were returns from supervision. And of those admissions, 88% were returned only for violating their terms of supervision.
"That means people had to go back to prison for something as minor as missing a meeting — not for a new offense," ACLU-MN said.
To address these numbers, ACLU-MN recommended that the state cap probation terms, and end incarceration for technical violations. They also recommended the state eliminate "wealth-based conditions" that disproportionately impact low-income offenders, like sentence extensions for failure to pay fines, fees and restitution, and cash bail.
ACLU-MN also recommended the state legalize recreational marijuana in order to cut down drug-related incarcerations, the most common charge in the state. Twenty percent of Minnesota's prison population in 2018 was incarcerated for drug offenses. By putting in place their drug law reforms, ACLU-MN said the state could cut the state's prison population by nearly 1,700.
In 2015, 25% of imprisonments were for drug charges. Other top offenses leading to incarceration that year were assault (21%), sexual assault (10%), burglary (8%), driving while impaired (7%) and weapons offenses (5%).
Minnesota's Democratic Gov. Tim Walz has been an ardent supporter of full marijuana legalization, but failed to get a bill past the state's divided Legislature.
The report also noted racial disparities within Minnesota's criminal justice system. Despite the fact that under 6% of the state's adult population in 2017 was Black, 34% of the state prison population was. The disparity was less prevalent, but still there for Latino Minnesotans: That year, approximately 4% of the state population was Latino, but 6% of inmates were.
In the same year, approximately 10% of the overall prison population was Native, despite Native Americans making up only about 1% of Minnesota's overall population. According to the report, Native American adults are imprisoned at nearly 14-times the rate of their white counterparts.
At the Minnesota Justice Research Center's Oct. 30 conference in Minneapolis, Walz called the state's racial inequities "glaring," and said Minnesotans of color are "negotiating a system that was designed not to work for them." He has repeatedly called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.