When punishment goes too far

A recent report offers ways to reduce the needlessly harmful effects of sentencing policies

Conclusion of a two-part story

Jail Corridor And CellsLast week, part one of this story examined the adverse health effects of drug and sentencing policies on individuals, families, and communities of color as reported in a recent Health Impact Assessment by the Minneapolis Council on Crime and Justice (CCJ). This week the story continues with potential ways to reduce these adverse effects.

The CCJ report offers the following “Recommendations for state legislators to consider”:

•  Eliminating mandatory minimums, since doing so has been associated with reductions in incarceration rates ranging from 15 percent to 43 percent in other states and will increase the number of people who can access community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment, which is associated with recovery outcomes while on probation.

•  Raising drug weight thresholds so that more people will be recommended for probation under the Sentencing Guidelines and will be able to access community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment.

•  Expanding drug court capacity and eligibility, since drug courts are associated with lower revocation and recidivism rates, shorter prison stays, and reduced rates of relapse.

•  Reclassifying some low-level offenses as misdemeanors so that, while still being held accountable for their crime, more people can access jobs, education, and housing.

•  Requiring racial impact statements for criminal justice bills in order to identify the potential for unnecessary or unintentional racial and ethnic disparities in arrest, sentencing, and incarceration. A racial impact statement is a tool for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation of the legislation. Analogous to fiscal impact statements, they assist legislators in detecting unforeseen policy ramifications.

•  Making legislation retroactive in order to maximize the number of people eligible to serve shortened sentences.

•  Allocating sufficient funds to expand prison- and community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment services, which are associated with lowered recidivism and relapse rates.

DOC Commissioner Tom Roy
DOC Commissioner Tom Roy

Other recommendations are included for other policymakers in other sections.

As previously mentioned, there had already been some interest shown by state legislators to address disparities when drafting legislation in an effort to lessen or eliminate the unintended negative consequences of legislation on communities of color.

Senator Jeff Hayden and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen have co-sponsored a bill currently making its way through the legislature requiring that such negative consequences be taken into account when passing legislation. We were unable to obtain comment from Hayden.

Referring to the CCJ report, Thissen said “This is exactly the kind of information that I would expect would go into the disparities equity notes. I also think that as equity notes are requested, more studies like this will be prompted so that we can develop more information to shed light on the impact of our proposals on people’s lives.

(Thissen explained that “equity notes” are “basically a tool for the legislature as they’re looking at legislation and proposed laws, to have all the information before them about whether it’s going to increase or decrease racial or socioeconomic disparities.”)

“I do think that there is a good amount of information out there; it’s making sure that legislators know it when we’re taking votes on things,” Thissen added. The Thissen/Hayden bill did get a hearing in the senate and is now with the Senate Finance Committee. Amendments have been added that would require agencies to do a similar analysis when implementing new programs.

Although the fate of the bill has yet to be determined, Thissen said, “At least we’d be going in with our eyes more open.”

Raeisha Williams
Raeisha Williams

Policymakers and public figures we spoke with had a positive response to the CCJ study. Raeisha Williams, Minneapolis NAACP communications director and Ward 5 City Council candidate, said “This research study is an important step to unveiling the many disparities that are interconnected with the mass incarceration of African Americans. The study speaks to the many health disparities that are caused by incarceration in the State of Minnesota. The prison boom during the ‘War on Drugs’ affected the entire family, and we are still dealing with it as a community mentally and physically.”

Matt Swenson, Governor Mark Dayton’s press secretary, told us, “The Governor’s Office, his policy advisers, and commissioners of health and corrections are reviewing this report. Its findings will help inform the work of the administration as it studies and reviews issues concerning sentencing reform.”

Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Tom Roy said, “Many who enter our corrections system bring with them significant health concerns including chronic physical conditions, substance dependence, and mental health crises. When we can intervene and provide quality health services while they are with us, we can literally save lives.

“Also, when we consider that nine percent of our incarcerated offenders are returning to our communities [annually], it benefits us all when they are returning in a healthier state with good connections to community health providers.

“It is also important to recognize that long periods of incarceration and separation from family can negatively impact the health of children in those families. There are over 16,000 children in Minnesota with an incarcerated parent. Their risk of health and social decline can be far greater than the base population. Often more effective correctional interventions exist within the community corrections system and in concert with many community health providers.

“We need to always be cognizant that our limited prison resources should only be used as the last resort or when the severity of the crime requires it.”

A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Health has indicated that they are also going forward with their own study in this area as well.

 

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.