When punishment goes too far

A recent report points out harmful, unintended effects of sentencing policies

First of a two-part story

Jail Corridor And Cells

In recent years, the disparities between Minnesota communities of color and White Minnesotans has been the subject of much talk in some quarters. Much of the talk describes and explains the disparities, but less talk seems to involve the way to move forward and beyond them.

That has recently begun to change. Recent efforts by Minnesota state legislators and Minneapolis’ Council on Crime and Justice (CCJ) to plot a way forward would appear to complement each other. Legislation offered in this session seeks to impel the legislature to take into account unintended negative consequences of legislation on communities of color, and a recent Health Impact Assessment by the Council on Crime and Justice examined the adverse health effects of drug and sentencing policy on individuals, families, and communities of color.

The CCJ report offers recommendations to lawmakers that would relieve some of the needlessly harmful effects of mass incarceration, which impact communities of color more than any others. As the report notes, compromising the health of offenders and disrupting the lives of their families are unintended consequences of much criminal justice legislation, consequences that need to be recognized and alleviated wherever possible. The following is a brief summary of key findings and recommendations from the CCJ report.

Noting that Minnesota’s drug policies have not changed in 25 years, the Council’s report points out that in that time “…there have been great leaps in the science of criminal justice demonstrating that a focus on the personal and social context of the offender, and not just their offense, results in better outcomes.”

In a later section, the report goes on to note: “Crime, rehabilitation, and public safety are typically the dominant drivers of criminal justice decision-making. Drug sentencing was chosen to be the focus of this Health Impact Assessment (HIA) because health impacts have historically been left out of decision-making considerations in formulating criminal justice policy…

“These findings and recommendations illustrate how particular changes in the proposed drug sentencing legislation could facilitate positive (or negative) health, recovery, and community well-being.”

Some consequences of current laws and policy include, but are not limited to:

• Earlier mortality associated even with prison sentences of less than a year

• High incarceration and felony record rates resulting in multiple, cumulative inequities      in education, employment, income, housing, and health outcomes

• Break-up of families and increased need for foster care

• Inability to secure employment and employment-related health care after release

• Increased length of exposure to disease, such as Hepatitis C, violence, trauma and stress

The status quo in Minnesota regarding drug policy and sentencing sees communities of color, including Native Americans, as the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated and suffering the long-term negative effects of incarceration.

The CCJ report references four bills proposed last year and revived in this legislative session: “Senate File 773, companion bill House File 994, Senate File 3182, and companion bill House File 2107. The proposed legislation was motivated by the political desire to reduce the prison population, provide nonviolent offenders with improved addiction treatment, and improve public safety by imprisoning drug criminals with a history of violence.

The proposed legislation may have potential effects on six aspects of drug sentencing in Minnesota:

1) Threshold drug weights, which determine the severity of drug crimes.

2) Mandatory minimums, which require prison sentences for subsequent first, second and third degree drug crimes and jail sentences for subsequent fourth and fifth degree drug crimes.

3) Eligibility criteria for the Conditional Release Program, which qualifies participants for early release from prison once they have successfully completed chemical dependency treatment.

4) Eligibility criteria for discharge and dismissals, which defer prosecution for certain low-level offenders.

5) Aggravating factors, which are used to determine culpability of the defendant and the appropriateness of imposing a harsher sentence.

Reinvestment savings to increase Department of Corrections (DOC) funding for chemical dependency and mental health treatment programs. This HIA did not study the health impacts of the other programs of the reinvestment legislative provision, which include offender educational programs, crime victim services, probation and supervised release enhancement, re-entry programs, and recidivism reduction programs.

The CCJ’s analysis of these bills shows that

SF 773/HF 994 will result in more than 5 times as many Minnesotans being diverted from incarceration to probation.

“SF 1382 and HF 2107 will increase prison rates for some convicted offenders.”

Also:SF 773/HF 994 will result in more than 3 times as many shortened prison sentences.

“SF 1382 and HF 2107 will increase sentence lengths for some convicted offenders.”


Next week: Recommendations on ways state legislators can reduce harmful unintended impacts on offenders’ health and family consequences.

Due to space considerations, it was necessary to offer an abbreviated version of the CCJ’s Health Impact Assessment. The full report may be viewed at http://www.crimeandjustice.org/HIA/HIA%20Report_3-11-16_FINAL.pdf.

Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to ipeterson@spokesman-recorder.com.