By Brandon Campbell
Minnesota News Connection
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Dec. 23, 2015) — As Minnesota’s prison population continues to grow, a group of religious leaders are speaking out in support of plans to lighten the state’s drug sentencing laws.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is holding a public meeting this afternoon to weigh the pros and cons of those changes. Lars Negstad, strategic campaign coordinator with the interfaith advocacy group called ISAIAH, says about two-thirds of the state’s prisoners are locked up because of low-level, nonviolent drug convictions. And he says there’s a large racial disparity there.
“Essentially, the war on drugs is heavily racialized and has been a means to lock up a whole group of people over the past couple decades,” says Negstad. “And that’s just a disgraceful legacy and something that can’t continue.”
At today’s hearing, county attorneys and other law enforcement agents plan to argue against changes, such as lowering the minimum sentences for certain drug offenders. They say these moves would not be in the interest of public safety.
An analysis of government data by the Minneapolis Post shows black Minnesotans make up 35 percent of the state’s prisoners, but they represent just six percent of the overall population. Negstad says this is leading to other problems, not only for the individuals who are locked up, but also for their families.
“There’s no way to close the disparities in all kinds of other fronts in terms of education and income and wealth and health without tackling the incarceration crisis,” he says.
Minister Toya Woodland, with the Christ Temple Apostolic Church, believes that lowering minimum drug sentences for people who have addiction problems is a good start. But she says those drug offenders would be better served by treatment programs rather than prison.
“When did we start locking people up for being mentally ill,” says Woodland. “Addiction is a DSM-IV classified mental illness.”
Both sides will have a chance to speak at today’s hearing. Then the Sentencing Guidelines Commission is expected to make a final decision on the proposed changes by Dec. 30.