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This is the way to a more peaceful soluition try this firstWith sentences for methamphetamine crimes surging, Minnesota’s prisons are bursting at the seams with inmates, and officials say building cells for the continuing influx will cost taxpayers more than $100 million over the next several years.
New projections issued by the Department of Corrections show the inmate population reaching nearly 10,000 by mid-2011, compared with 7,579 this year. As recently as 1985, the state had only 2,244 felons behind prison bars.
As a long-term response, the department is proposing a major rebuilding program at the medium-security Faribault prison, where inmates are now housed in aging buildings formerly used as a state hospital. After tearing down 20 structures, many of them a century old, the department hopes to build five new ones and increase the prison’s capacity to 2,286, making it the state’s biggest.
Lino Lakes prison
Gov. Tim Pawlenty hasn’t yet decided whether to include the $74.9 million needed for the project’s first phase in his capital improvement recommendation to the 2004 Legislature, which convenes Feb. 2. Corrections officials also hope a $34 million second phase will be approved in 2006.
“If we get both phases, it should carry us through until 2012 or ’13,” said Dennis Benson, deputy corrections commissioner.
At the medium-security Lino Lakes prison, the department is currently constructing a $14 million prototype of one of the buildings planned for Faribault. The 416-bed facility is expected to open in mid-2004, replacing five small dormitories built in the 1960s for juvenile offenders.
Lino Lakes inmates line up for lunch.
Meanwhile, second bunks are being added to 400 cells in the old fortresslike prisons at St. Cloud and Stillwater; inmates there will soon double up in cells designed for one.
Since July, 290 state convicts with only a few months left on their sentences have been housed in local jails. In the coming years, more of those with up to 18 months to serve may be transferred to jails in Kandiyohi, Rice, Scott, Stearns and other counties, Benson said. The state pays about $55 per inmate per day.
Lino Lakes prison is building a 416-bed addition.
Overflow Minnesota inmates also could return to the privately owned Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn., for the first time in years, Benson said.
Out of balance
Minnesota prisons annually release 4,000 felons whose sentences are up. But the new projections show that nearly 300 more than that will come in the gates each year through 2011, when the inmate population is predicted to hit 9,940. The projections aren’t totally reliable, however. Last year’s estimate fell 181 short of the actual count of 7,766 last month.
Where are all the criminals coming from? According to the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, a record 12,978 felons were sentenced in Minnesota last year, a 20 percent increase over 2001. Most of them don’t go to prison, however. The majority get local jail time, probation and other community-based sanctions, a policy that has kept Minnesota’s incarceration rate and per-capita prison costs among the nation’s lowest.
But an increasing number are getting hard time. In 1997, only 64 felons were sent to state prisons for crimes involving the addictive synthetic stimulant methamphetamine. There were 460 last year, and another 407 in the first 10 months of 2003, Benson said.
“They’re getting longer sentences, too,” he added.
Another growth area is Minnesota’s new felony penalty for chronic drunken drivers. About 125 four-time-and-greater offenders have been sent to prison with sentences averaging more than four years since that law took effect in August 2002. Officials project the number to grow to 425 over the next three years.
In recent years, several corrections commissioners have sought to scale back guidelines sentences for some drug offenses and put more emphasis on addiction treatment. Opposition from prosecutors and others has stopped those efforts cold.
This fall, some of the most prominent proposals from Republican and DFL legislators for the 2004 session have pointed in the opposite direction: increased penalties for methamphetamine crimes.
Conrad deFiebre, Star Tribune
Published December 11, 2003