Packing the Prisons

AT THE END of the 1996 session, Minnesota legislators hoping to provide some relief to the state's overcrowded prison system authorized $89 million for a new 800-bed facility in Rush City.

But lawmakers and corrections officials acknowledge that the new prison--to be completed and online by 2000--will not ease overcrowding. Without fundamental changes in corrections policies, they say, conditions will worsen as the system becomes overwhelmed by a flood of new offenders serving longer sentences. If unchecked, prison spending will claim a greater share of the state's discretionary spending, taking progressively more dollars away from health care and education. By the time the Rush City prison is completed, corrections spending will cost taxpayers as much as $234 million annually--not including construction costs for any additional facilities--and prisons will still be overcrowded.

"With our projections right now," says Minnesota Department of Corrections Assistant Deputy Commissioner Mark Thielen, "we will still be between 300 and 500 beds short after the new prison opens... even if no new laws are on the books." Currently, according to Thielen, the system operates at about 105 percent of capacity and houses nearly 4,800 inmates. Conditions at the system's close-custody facilities in Stillwater and St. Cloud, where potentially violent inmates are confined, are worse. Stillwater currently exceeds its capacity by 8 percent, and in St. Cloud, 829 men are confined in a prison built for only 698. The Rush City project will be a close-custody prison.

But Thielen's projection is generous, according to a report recently prepared by the Minnesota Department of Planning at the request of Gov. Arne Carlson. More likely, the report says, the total bed shortage will exceed 800 by 1998, climbing to nearly 1,200 by the time the Rush City prison opens. Even after the new facility opens, the planning department projects the shortfall to be around 600, reaching more than 900 by the year 2005 when more than 6,600 people will be behind bars in Minnesota prisons.

Daniel Storkamp, one of the report's authors, points to four factors behind the surge: changing social demographics, increased arrest rates, the drug war, and rigid sentencing guidelines. People under the age of 25 account for more than two-thirds of the arrests and apprehensions for violent crimes in Minnesota. Moreover, the number of people between the ages of 18 and 24 is expected to increase dramatically by the year 2005. The result, says Storkamp, will be more young people in the prison system, where they already account for more than one-third of the total population. Without some sort of preventive measures, he adds, that number will go through the roof.

But both men agree the biggest factor behind the surging inmate population has been a series of policy decisions designed to make criminal penalties more punitive. Storkamp points out that the Legislature has enacted 37 new or enhanced felony sanctions since 1989.

In addition to a host of new drug sanctions, the Legislature in 1989 doubled the sentence lengths for serious crimes and increased by 13 years the minimum amount of prison time that inmates who receive life sentences must serve before being considered for parole. In 1992, lawmakers established life sentences without parole for first-degree murders tied to sexual assault and for repeat sex offenders. Of course, stiffer penalties for less heinous offenses such as drunk driving and domestic abuse were also put in place, effectively doubling the prison population. But the real effect, he said, has not yet been felt.

"For example," the report says, "adding 13 years to the 17 years formerly served by most offenders for a life sentence will not intensify bed shortages until the year 2006, 17 years after the law went into effect."

To deal with the looming increases brought on by today's get-tough-on-crime mentality, Thielen says, Minnesotans had best be prepared to fund a lot of new prisons: "When you have continuing get-tough legislation, you're going to have to keep building prisons. I think our corrections dollars could be spent in different ways."

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