The ACLU just published a 50-state Blueprint for Smart Justice, with state-specific recommendations for reducing state prison populations by at least half. It’s time and past time—Minnesota’s prison population grew by a stunning 51 percent from 2000 to 2016. Prisons were already over-full in 2000. The total growth in state imprisonment quintupled between 1980 and 2016. That’s five times as many people in Minnesota prisons in 2016, compared to 1980.
Besides the 9,849 people in Minnesota prisons in July 2018, another 111,000 were under some kind of probation or parole, and about 6,000 more were in county jails.
You might think that increasing prison population is a response to increasing crime. Nope. Serious crime in Minnesota has steadily decreased over the past 20 years.
The ACLU research found that prosecution and sentencing for drug offenses accounts for much of the increase in imprisonment:
“In 2018, nearly one in five people imprisoned in Minnesota had been convicted of a drug offense, making drug offenses the most common offense for people in prison that year. In 2017, 18,288 people were sentenced for felony offenses — 69 percent more than were sentenced in 2001. Much of that growth can be attributed to an increase in the number of people sentenced for drug offenses, which more than doubled over this period.”
Prison sentences fall disproportionately hard on people of color:
“In 2017, Black Minnesotans accounted for 34 percent of the prison population and only 6 percent of the Minnesota state adult population.12 Between 2008 and 2018, the Black prison population grew by 13 percent while the white prison population fell by 2 percent.13 Native American adults are imprisoned at nearly 14 times the rate of white adults in Minnesota, and though they account for only 1 percent of the state’s adult population.”
The recommendations in the ACLU report would reduce overall Minnesota prison population by slightly more than half, but would not affect the racial disparities in the criminal justice system or prison population. Racism is systemic, affecting every aspect of society: medical care, education, employment, housing,. banking, as well as policing and sentencing. Changing racial disparities in imprisonment requires systemic change at every level, and particularly conscious and significant change in patterns of policing and prosecution. As a start, the ACLU Blueprint for Smart Justice for Minnesota recommends:
“The Minnesota Legislature must move away from a culture of criminalization, end the practice of constantly expanding the criminal code, and prioritize alternatives to incarceration….“If Minnesota were to adopt the changes outlined in this report, the state could achieve a 50 percent reduction in its prison population and save more than $411 million by 2025 — money that could be better spent on schools, infrastructure, and services for Minnesotans.”