Could Minnesota move toward slashing drug sentences?

Alonzo Elem of Mad Dads wants shorter sentences accompanied by efforts to break the poverty-prison cycle.

Alonzo Elem of Mad Dads wants shorter sentences accompanied by efforts to break the poverty-prison cycle.

With Minnesota prisons crowding and costs rising, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has tentatively approved a plan that could significantly reduce how long certain offenders are behind bars.

The proposal, put forth by the group of mostly judges and lawyers, would recommend that the state Legislature lighten sentences by upward of 20 percent in certain drug cases and give judges more tools to differentiate between dealers and addicts. Supporters say the move, which goes up for a public hearing and a final vote next month, could free up 700 prison beds.

Alonzo Elem of Mad Dads, who attended the meeting, says he’s on board with the plan, provided that savings are passed along to communities through youth mentor programs or programs helping former prisoners get back on their feet.

Growing up in Chicago, Elem got hooked on cocaine at the age of 14 before moving on to crack. With addiction as his master, Elem started selling drugs on his dealer's behalf, to feed his habit, he says.

“For me to get my fix I had to help him make $1,000 .… Those are the people that they’re locking up, charging them in these cases.”

In the mid-2000s, Elem spent two and a half years in prison — not on drug charges, but for an aggravated assault case related to his dealing. Upon his release in 2008, Elem had trouble finding or maintaining work. He initially landed a gig through a job placement firm, though he was canned after a day when they discovered he had a felony. Eventually he was hired at Wendy's, but he wasn’t making enough to live on, says Elem, who has custody of his three grandchildren.

“They tell you ‘OK, you’ve done your time. Come out and be a productive member of society,’” he says. “But then they take the fact that you’ve been convicted and become a felon [and won’t] give you a job to help you take care of your kids.”

Elem is still searching for steady work that allows him to provide for his family. Although the assault case is a decade old, it’s prevented him from landing even low-level jobs. “I filled out applications just to move boxes and I got problems with my background,” Elem says.

Jeff Gipson of Next Step Staffing, a Minneapolis organization that helps vets, recovering addicts, and ex-cons find jobs, says employers don’t look at sentence lengths (that info isn’t on background checks). Depending on their crimes, he’s often able to place former offenders in industrial-type jobs, though many companies have no-felonies-period policies.

Without avenues to make positive changes, Gipson says it increases the likelihood that the formerly incarcerated will return to their old ways.

“It’s important to keep them connected and have the resources around them to give them the courage to not give up,” he says.