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A familiar debate: Jail or treatment?
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Amber Bluhm began using meth in high school. Now 22, she faces six months behind bars after a second conviction of possessing meth. She appealed her sentence to the state Supreme Court, but lost. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
The effects of methamphetamine use are working their way through our criminal justice system. The rapid rise in meth arrests is one of the main factors in sharply higher prison populations. The cost of housing drug offenders has renewed an old debate -- what works best, prison or treatment? The debate over state drug policies came into sharp focus this year in a case involving methamphetamine, jail time and a young Minnesota mother.

St. Paul, Minn. — The numbers tell a troublesome story. About 40 percent of the state's felony drug convictions involve methamphetamine. That's more than 1,300 cases. About 90 percent of those offenders spend time behind bars in local jails or state prisons.

Minnesota corrections officials can feel the explosion. Inmates convicted of a drug charge, including meth, make up about one-fourth of the 7,600 adults in prison. That number has doubled in just six years.

Amber Bluhm is one of those heading to jail. Bluhm, 22, faces a six-month sentence after pleading guilty to methamphetamine possession. It's her second meth conviction. She also pleaded guilty to possession in 1999. In the days before she's sent away, she regrets her drug use.

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Image Justice James Gilbert

"I'd love to go back to high school. I'd do it all over, I'd go to prom, I'd be in more sports," says Bluhm. "I missed everything. I missed my graduation ceremony. I missed living."

A church-going, small-town girl, Bluhm once considered herself "goody-goody." She says her path to jail began with cigarettes. Marijuana followed, then methamphetamine. Her life was filled with tragedy. She says two of her friends killed themselves because of meth.

Bluhm says she hasn't used meth for two years, but still feels the effects. She hears and sees things that aren't there. She warns teenagers to stay away from meth.

"If they don't want to hear voices and stuff, then they shouldn't use," says Bluhm. "If they don't want to hear the insanity and the craziness. It's evil. I pray every day that it will go away."

That's not all she's dealing with. The mother of a 2-year-old son, Bluhm is scared to go to jail. She pleaded guilty two years ago to her second meth charge, but is free while she appeals. She argues jail is too harsh a punishment -- that it will do more harm than good, and punish her son as well. Bluhm says she's beat her addiction. She went through drug treatment, finished high school and held a job.

I'm one of the few that did straighten up and I did get my life together. ... And I feel like they're just telling me that's not good enough. Like who cares if you get sober, you're still a piece of crap.
- Amber Bluhm

"I'm sober now, and I don't see why I need to get punished for being an addict -- when I got help. Now it's just going to make things worse for me," Bluhm says. "I've straightened my life up and my life's going great. Now I'm just going to go to jail, everything's just going to fall apart on me again, and I've got to pick it up again when I get out of jail."

That's a real life summary of the anti-prison, pro-treatment argument. It's gaining support from some influential members of Minnesota government.

Amber Bluhm's appeal went to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The court upheld Bluhm's six-month jail sentence, but not without reservation. The court said Minnesota law requires jail time for a second drug conviction. But the justices also noted their "disfavor" with mandatory sentences. Many feel it takes away their discretion.

In a separate opinion, Associate Justice James Gilbert said Bluhm "has turned her life around." Noting her sobriety, Gilbert wrote, "Bluhm has done everything the criminal justice system could hope for." Gilbert said given that progress, jail time for Bluhm was "unnecessary" and "harsh." He agreed, however, that because of the way state drug laws are written, Amber Bluhm must go to jail.

Justice Gilbert would not comment directly on the Bluhm case. But he did talk about how Minnesota's criminal justice system is being tested by the increase in drug arrests.

"There's no question that the problem is there. And it's not going to go away if we just pretend it's not there. It's been there for a long time, in some counties it's getting worse," says Gilbert. "Now methamphetamine in greater Minnesota is the drug of choice, and in my opinion that's almost like an epidemic."

Justice Gilbert says the state should look for alternatives to imprisonment. He promotes the use of drug courts. Currently there are seven drug courts operating in Minnesota. In a drug court, offenders are sent to treatment. Gilbert says there is a powerful incentive for offenders to complete the program.

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Image Rep. Eric Lipman

"They realize if they step out of bounds and don't follow the mercy -- if you will -- that has been granted them by the court, they're going to be going into jail real quick," says Gilbert.

The sheer cost of imprisonment is incentive for some to rethink state drug laws. Rep. Eric Lipman, R-Lake Elmo, says too many people are being imprisoned. He says Minnesota taxpayers will pay another $300 million in prison costs over the next 10 years, unless it changes drug sentencing.

Lipman says Minnesota drug laws are among the harshest in the nation. A person can spend more than seven years in jail for possessing 25 grams of meth. That's the weight of 25 paper clips. In most other states, the sentence would be one year behind bars.

"So we are many, many times higher then most every place else in the U.S.," says Lipman, "in ways that I think are very expensive to the taxpayer and corrosive to the community, in comparison with what deterrent effect we're getting and what rehabilitative effect we're getting."

Lipman says without adequate treatment, many offenders start using drugs as soon as they're released. Lipman has tried, without luck, to get the Legislature to send more people to treatment instead of jail.

A report by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission says treatment would save money. The study says prison costs the state nearly $30,000 a year per inmate, while the cost of treatment is just over $4,000.

But those against relaxing drug laws say something more important than money is at risk. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, says easing penalties will lead to more drug use. Lesch says any relaxation of state law is basically a free sales pitch for the drug industry.

"It strikes me as the Wal-Mart bill for drug dealers," says Lesch. "You know -- low, low prices for buying in bulk."

Lesch works as a prosecutor for the city of St. Paul. He says judges have enough leeway now to deal with drug offenders. He says judges often give lighter sentences for drug crimes then state law recommends.

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission report offers support for that claim. About half the people convicted of manufacturing meth receive a lighter sentence then called for in state guidelines. In fact, the report says, judicial departure from state recommended sentences has been "consistently high" for drug offenses. But not in all cases.

Amber Bluhm awaits jail time, even though one state Supreme Court justice said that sentence amounts to "unmitigated harshness." Bluhm says it sends a signal.

"I'm one of the few that did straighten up and I did get my life together. Went to treatment. I've been trying to go to school and everything else. And I feel like they're just telling me that's not good enough. Like who cares if you get sober, you're still a piece of crap," says Bluhm.

That sense of worthlessness is the kind of attitude that can contribute to more drug use. Bluhm says that won't happen to her, she says her son is all the incentive she needs to stay away from methamphetamine.

But many others fall victim to the drug time after time. That means more crime, and offers state lawmakers a challenge -- spend money for more prisons, or take the politically risky step of sending more offenders to treatment instead.

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