Pubdate: Thu, 24 Dec 2015
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)
Copyright: 2015 Star Tribune
Author: Abby Simons
Page: B1


A Panel Heard Testimony on Pros and Cons of a New Approach.

An emotional crowd jammed a hearing Wednesday as state leaders tried 
sorting through a proposal to overhaul Minnesota's drug sentencing 
guidelines to decrease prison time and better distinguish addicts 
from potentially violent drug dealers.

Randy Anderson, a three-time felon in his 10th year of recovery from 
cocaine addiction, said the assumption that all dealers are dangerous 
is ludicrous. At the height of his addiction, he was using 10 to 14 
grams a day and dealing drugs just to support his habit. When the 
police came for him, he was charged with possessing more than 1,000 
grams of cocaine. While desperately addicted, he says he was never violent.

"I didn't burglarize, I didn't assault anyone, hell, I even paid my 
taxes, "said Anderson, who wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the 
word "Felon."

Nearly three dozen people, from faith leaders and recovering addicts 
to police officers, addressed the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines 
Commission to offer two distinct viewpoints. Anderson and other 
supporters of the changes say the state's current sentencing laws are 
draconian and tearing apart families, as relatively harmless drug 
users are locked up for too long. They say that drug addiction should 
be addressed with treatment - not imprisonment, particularly at the 
height of racial disparities in drug convictions. Law enforcement 
officials said that while they support an overhaul for low-level 
offenders, the proposed changes will enable high-level and often 
violent drug dealers to continue their trade with reduced risk of 
spending significant time behind bars.

Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and committee chairman Christopher 
Dietzen said the proposal is a compromise between the two sides. 
While it lowers the amount of prison time for the most serious drug 
dealers, it is also sets more lenient sentences for those convicted 
of possession.

The changes would also allow judges more latitude to increase 
sentences for major drug dealers, but also include more leniency in 
some cases to enable addicts to enter treatment rather than prison. 
The commission will vote on the proposed changes Dec. 30. Unless the 
Legislature intervenes to stop or otherwise alter the changes, they 
will take effect in August. Analysts say that the changes could save 
523 prison beds in Minnesota by 2028.

Anderson, the felon, said he was lucky because he was offered 
treatment. But, he said, "I was sentenced to 87 months in prison for 
having a disease. What purpose does an additional five or six years serve?"

Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys 
Association, shared law enforcement's concerns about loosening the 
penalties for major drug offenses.

"At a time when the heroin trade is thriving in our communities, it 
is just not right to be reducing the sentence for anyone in the 
distribution chain and who is bringing this poison into our 
communities," Small said.

Charles Strack, a Little Falls police detective and member of the 
Central Minnesota Violent Offender Task Force, held up a baggie 
filled with brown sugar to represent 6 ounces of heroin, a 
significant amount of the drug. If authorities decided to charge him 
with drug possession rather than distribution to ensure his 
cooperation, he could likely avoid prison time. It is those cases - 
the kingpins - that they're worried about.

"There's a myth that low-end marijuana users are going to prison," 
Strack said. "The part that no one tells you is that they're going 
because they're violating their probationary conditions."

Before the hearing, Nathaniel Doehling, director of TakeAction 
Minnesota's Justice4All Program, said that at the height of 
disparities in the criminal justice system, the time is ripe for change.

"I myself have been incarcerated in the past and been labeled a thug, 
a criminal, a convict, instead of a leader, a human, a father, just 
being a person who made a mistake," he said, adding that people of 
color are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of whites. "We're the 
second worst state in the nation for black people to live in. The 
chains of Jim Crow have not left, they've just changed."

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police 
Association, said incarceration isn't just about being punitive - it 
is about public safety.

"Longer incarceration of people is designed for who those we are 
afraid of, not just mad at," he said.

As the meeting closed, the Rev. Grant Stevensen asked the six 
committee members present - all white - to "restore a moment of 
sanity" with the proposed reforms, and to consider why people of 
color are incarcerated so much more often than whites.

"Take a look at why that might be happening," he said. "The 
television cameras are gone now. We could have a holy moment of introspection."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom