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Tougher penalties could add to overcrowding problem
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State lawmakers need to add space to a system that's already crowded. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Minnesota's legislative leaders say they hope to pass tougher penalties for people who commit sex crimes and drug offenses. The problem is the state's prison system is running out of space. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is asking state lawmakers to borrow over $100 million to add space at two of its facilities. But legislators may have some other ideas.

St. Paul, Minn. — Both Republicans and DFLers are eager to increase penalties for sex offenders and people who make and sell methamphetamine.

"We need to have common sense life in prison for these violent offenders," Rep. Kurt Zellars, R-Maple Grove, said at a news conference to push his bill for increasing sentences for anyone who commits a sex crime. "We have too many examples in the last few years of people who have done this to the most vulnerable in society."

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, held his own news conference to highlight his meth legislation. He says lawmakers need to act quickly: "This problem has gotten bigger and bigger, month by month, day by day, we see new problems, new issues coming up with the problem of methamphetamine."

Supporters of both pieces of legislation say it's likely the measures will pass this year.

The interest in longer sentences for sex offenders has been building for over a year - ever since the death of college student Dru Sjodin allegedly at the hands of a released Minnesota sex offender. The only major difference between the House and Senate approaches is expected to be over just how long sex offender sentences should be.

House Republicans want life sentences, without the possibility of parole for anyone who commits a violent sex crime. Senate DFLers prefer indeterminate sentences so a parole board could allow for the release of model offenders.

While lawmakers negotiate over which penalty fits best for Minnesota, state corrections officials are trying to fit the current inmate population in its existing prisons. Joan Fabian is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

"We need to figure out where to put these offenders," Fabian said.

Fabian says the state's prison population has increased 45 percent in the past five years. Fabian says her agency is using several strategies to address the trend: double bunking inmates in cells designed to hold one; keeping low level offenders in local jails; and housing inmates in a privately run prison in Appleton, Minnesota. Fabian and her boss, Governor Pawlenty, say it's important now to add prison space. Fabian wants lawmakers to borrow $106 million to expand the Faribault and Stillwater prisons.

"With this Faribault expansion, we'll get about 1,060 beds and that will take care of the problem for a while," she said.

Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, says her caucus supports Pawlenty's expansion plans but she's concerned the state could still run out of space. Ranum says because a quarter of the state's inmates are in prison because of non-violent drug crimes it may be time to rethink sentences for those offenses. It costs about $77 a day to house an inmate in Minnesota. Ranum says an increased inmate population could add to the state's budget problems. Minnesota has a projected $700 million deficit. Ranum says drug treatment may be a better option for some inmates.

"Let's make sure we put people in prison who need to be in prison. As opposed to people who need to be on probation and on drug treatment programs because that's a lot less expensive."
- DFL Senator Jane Ranum

"Before we start embarking on another prison, which is a very expensive proposition, let's make sure we put people in prison who need to be in prison," Ranum said. "As opposed to people who need to be in probation and on drug treatment programs."

While Ranum and other Democrats support prison expansion, House Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach. House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says he'd prefer to ship inmates to a private prison in Appleton, Minnesota before spending any money expanding current facilities.

"Not to utilize what is there at Appleton is unwise," Sviggum said. "I don't think it's a huge direction change towards privatization of our correctional facility system but I think it's a wise use of existing facilities that are there."

Corrections officials say shipping inmates to private prisons will cost money that the department doesn't have. Fabian says her agency is about to run out of cash because it's been paying local county governments and private prisons to house state inmates. She says they'll ask lawmakers for more money to get through the current budget year.