Land of 10,000 Felons
Outside the Dakota County Jail in Hastings, expensive town homes abut open fields, and a steady stream of high-end cars makes its way into the bustling strip mall across the street. Inside the jail, by contrast, the halls are filled with the acrid stench of vomit. Dakota County Sheriff Don Gudmundson ambles through the jail past groups of men in blue jumpers, then stops outside of a rubber-lined room. He proudly pounds his fist on the open door to reveal its safety: "We have a lot more people using meth now," he says. "And this is where they end up for a while." Puke covers the drain in the middle of the room.
Four young female arrivals, who appear to be barely out of their teens, sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a wooden bench, their wrists in handcuffs. They talk over each other and erupt into laughter as if they're in the hallways of a high school instead of in custody. The yellow lighting makes everyone look half-dead or badly bruised. "Drugs," says Gudmundson, nodding toward the women. "You can just tell."
Whether or not the women possess telltale signs of drug use, there's no doubt that narcotics, especially methamphetamine, are fueling the prison business in the United States. Tougher sentencing is also playing a role, and there's evidence that the two factors are sending women to prison in unprecedented numbers .
A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that nationwide, the female prisoner population (prisoners with a sentence of more than one year) rose by 3.6 percent in 2003. After gradually increasing in the previous seven years, Minnesota's female prison population stayed virtually the same last year, but Gudmundson says that's about to change. He sees women arriving in record numbers to the Dakota County Jail, many of whom are tweaked out on meth. "Women make up one-third of the drug users in the country," Gudmundson says. "But women make up one-half of all meth users." He adds that the meth-related charges against female offenders in Minnesota generally aren't possession, but charges that stem from addiction, such as forgery or credit card fraud.
The number of female prisoners in Minnesota may be steady for now, but the overall number of Minnesota prisoners increased by 10 percent in 2003, the second-highest jump in the United States, just slightly below our neighbors in North Dakota. As of July of this year, drug offenders made up 25 percent of the prison population in Minnesota. In 2000, drug offenders accounted for only 16 percent of the state's prison population.
Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology at the U of M and co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, says that while Minnesota has been fairly judicious in reserving beds for only major offenders in the past, the tide of equitable justice is shifting. "We haven't used prison beds so much for drug offenders," he says. "But now it's the largest category represented."
And there are other reasons for the prison boom. Crime rates have been decreasing over the last five years, but the prison population continues to grow. Gudmundson attributes Minnesota's prison growth to a number of issues. While drug use is one of the culprits, he says a federal mandate for stronger sentencing guidelines has become a major factor. The average prison term in Minnesota in 2001 was 33.9 months. It's now 45.75 months. And as the mentally ill continue to be marginalized, prisons now serve as America's mental institutions. "The mentally ill do not have a place in America," he says. "I know. I pay the bill every month. The number of people on psychotropic drugs is huge."
Another issue, Gudmundson says, is that prisoners are getting longer sentences when they're well past their prime. The number of Minnesota prisoners aged 50 or older exceeded 500 last year. "There are geriatric wards. I mean, come on," he says emphatically. "They're no longer a threat to society. All of this is creating hot beds, beds that are constantly filled."
Though Minnesota still boasts the second-lowest incarceration rate in the nation (155 per 100,000 residents), it has the fourth-highest probation rate in the country. However, while the number of men and women on probation continues to grow nationally (up to 4 million by year-end 2003), the number of adults on probation in Minnesota dropped by more than 12,000 in 2003--roughly 10 percent, the same percentage increase in the number of prisoners with a sentence of one year or more. In other words, the trend in Minnesota is to incarcerate even the small-time offenders.
Uggen says that the lock-'em-up mentality is a lazy way to manage the crime problem. "Probation is less disruptive, and it's less expensive," he says. "The virtue is that [drug offenders are] able to maintain a bond with their family, stay in their job, pay taxes. Plus, you don't have the dramatic reentry process prisoners go through."
But if Gudmundson has any say, the trend of doling out prison terms over probation will continue. "We don't put enough people in custody in the first place," he argues, despite his misgivings about the elderly and mentally ill. "They become repeat offenders. We put too many people on probation. Let's hit 'em harder up front and not have to worry about them time and time again. I think you ought to fine 'em, jail 'em, and forget about 'em."
There's reason to think that Gudmundson's brand of justice has traction, at least in his neck of the woods. His department recently received $10 million in state and county money to expand its jail system and accommodate the growing population. Construction should begin next year.
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