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VIEWPOINT: Improve outcomes in Minnesota corrections system

Often in our state legislature, votes are split strictly on party lines. However, when we seek solutions to issues within our criminal justice system, Minnesotans consistently find active bipartisan support.

There is a bipartisan recognition in Minnesota of prison over-population and woefully inadequate services and supports for those in need of treatment for substance abuse or other mental and behavioral health services.

I am a member of the Prison Population Task Force, convened last fall to solve the issue of crowding in our prisons. This panel is made up of members of both the House and Senate as well as topic experts including prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, advocates for mental health and chemical dependency services, and representatives from faith communities.

While Minnesota has historically had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S., this number is increasing at an alarming rate; our prison population is the fifth-fastest growing in the nation, according to 2014 statistics.

As of July 1, 2015, there were 560 more offenders than available beds in our prisons.

If laws and sentences stay the same, Minnesota will be short 1,200 prison beds within six years.

To address this problem in the short term, the state is renting beds from county jails, but that space is running out too.

The task force has heard a number of different proposals to address overpopulation. One option is to expand capacity at a current state prison; the Minnesota Department of Corrections has proposed an addition to the Rush City Facility. Unsurprisingly, this would be very expensive. A $141.5 million bond would be required to fund the 500-bed expansion proposed by the DOC. Considering all of the other state assets requesting bonding — including higher education institutions and wastewater infrastructure — I am unconvinced that a prison expansion would be the best use of our state's financial resources.

Some legislators have proposed contracting with the Prairie Correctional Facility, a privately owned, for-profit prison in the southwestern Minnesota community of Appleton. This facility closed in 2010, when the Corrections Corporation of America, the owner and operator of the facility, was unable to rent out enough beds to Minnesota and other states to sustain their business. Advocates tout contracting with Prairie Correctional Facility as an economic development tool for the region. I am deeply sympathetic to this region's economic needs; we must grow our economies in every corner of the state. However, locking Minnesotans up behind bars is a serious power wielded exclusively by the state, and we should actively work to prevent incarceration, not provide opportunities for distant corporations to profit from it.

Who are we as a community if our economic health relies on our fellow Minnesotans breaking laws?

A few weeks ago, the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report revealing persistent deficiencies in the mental health services delivered in our county jails.

The report noted: too few counselors and case managers to meet the demonstrated need; mental health assessments that are not consistently provided; and lack of discharge planning for inmates. These weaknesses create risks for offenders and for those responsible for inmates' care.

The Prison Population Task Force received similar information about our prisons. If we act swiftly to address these gaps, the reduction in recidivism will put us well on our way toward a downward trend in prison population.

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission has proposed that the legislature closely examine the sentences of inmates incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

For many of these inmates, their most critical need (and the one most likely to prevent recidivism) is chemical dependency treatment, and our prison system falls far short of effectively delivering this. Just a fraction of those offenders who require these services receive them, simply because we do not fund enough trained staff to meet the need.

Drug courts will also play a key part in serving nonviolent drug offenders. Court officials work with community and health care services to ensure the offender has access to appropriate treatment, with the aim of restoring the offender to health and as a productive citizen in the community.

The overarching goal of our criminal justice system should be to hold offenders accountable while reducing recidivism and enabling them to eventually reenter the community with the tools and resources to function well in our society.

Quick-fix proposals that appear "tough on crime" might produce nice sound bites, but they ignore the fractures in community that perpetuate the cycle of crime.

These are complex problems requiring sophisticated solutions; all my fellow legislators must be willing to make the tough decisions that will ensure a safe and productive Minnesota for us all.

JoAnn Ward represents District 53A in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She can be reached at 651-296-7807 or rep.joann.ward@house.mn.

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