Release of nonviolent drug offenders proposed


A person imprisoned for drug possession might be able to get out early from behind bars.

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Rosenthal (DFL-Edina), HF1096 would again allow the Department of Corrections to release a nonviolent offender convicted of drug possession if the offender serves a minimum portion of their sentence and completes substance abuse treatment while incarcerated.

The bill was held over Wednesday by the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion. A companion, SF976, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Mpls), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

“The intent of this bill is to get people out of the criminal justice system, get them treatment and reduce the need for our prisons to hold people that really don’t have much criminal intent,” Rosenthal said.

To be eligible for release, an offender would need to have committed the crime as a result of drug addiction; served at least 36 months or one-half of their sentence; completed a chemical dependency treatment program while in prison; have not previously been conditionally released through the program; and not been previously convicted for a violent crime.

“This makes sense for public safety and cost effectiveness,” said Dan Guerrero, a Minneapolis lawyer speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It costs $27,000 a year at Stillwater to keep somebody in prison. By reducing these sentences and allowing them be released early for nonviolent offenses certainly saves money on that end.”

Terry Carlson, the department’s deputy commissioner for facilities, said just a handful of prisoners each year would be eligible the program, in part, because many people convicted of drug possession do not go to prison, rather they are diverted to community supervision or other sanctions through drug court. In addition, many incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders take part in the successful Challenge Incarceration Program, further reducing the number of eligible prisoners for this program.

The program was first created in 2005 with a 2008 sunset date and later extended through 2011; however, because so few inmates were eligible Carlson said the program was discontinued.

“I like the (Department of Corrections) study that said of the 42 people who went through this none of them reoffended; one was sent back on a parole violation. I think that speaks to the effectiveness of treatment,” Guerrero said.