I was at a wedding reception last weekend and had the chance to reminisce with a senior state official about the good old days at the Minnesota Legislature. In a frolic that was in keeping with the festivities that evening, and a generous open bar, this official regaled a group of us with a remembrance of what he recalled as one of his “favorite legislative hearings.”
The senior official recalled an evening committee hearing for a bill
sponsored by “Minnesota’s Political Odd Couple” – then State Representative, and now U.S. Congressman, Keith Ellison, and yours truly. The bill, which drew a crowd of passionate advocates on both sides, proposed to raise the different threshold amounts that trigger prison sentences for drug possession. The official recalled both the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
editorial that the two upstart legislators wrote (still accessible here
) and the general uproar that we sparked (see, e.g., here
The argument advanced by Representative Ellison and I was pretty straightforward, if politically volatile: We said that when one compares the sentences for drug possession crimes under the laws of different states, the presumptive sentences meted out in Minnesota were the harshest in the nation. The resources that went to imprison nonviolent offenders for these comparatively longer periods of time, we continued, could be better spent on drug treatment for these same offenders.
As glasses clinked around the official and me back at the reception, some guests giggled good-naturedly over whether Representative Ellison and I were brave, or simply on leave of our senses, when proposing such a change.
Today, however, I do not feel so crazy. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, at the direction of the State Legislature, is looking at revising the sentencing grid that the two upstarts (now both gone from state legislative service) had once questioned. The Guidelines Commission announced plans on Friday
to begin a new study of state drug sentencing and to prepare proposals for sentencing reform. And the inquiries that are being undertaken are nothing short of remarkable. Among other topics, the Legislature has directed
the Commission to report on the:
· proportionality of Minnesota's drug sentencing provisions when compared to drug sentencing provisions throughout the United States, including the Federal system;
· average and the range of criminal history scores for each level of drug offender currently incarcerated in Minnesota's prisons;
· type and quantity of Minnesota correctional resources that are dedicated to all drug offenders; and
· projected annual cost to the Department of Corrections of incarcerating all drug offenders in state prisons over the next ten years, under present grid rankings and under the proposed grid rankings.
As another good friend remarked: “It’s not that you’re ahead of your time; it is just that no one listens to you in the first place….”
Well, better that than being crazy.