- Associated Press - Thursday, December 24, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A Minnesota commission has heard both support and concern for easing the penalties for possession and drug dealing ahead of an impending vote on drug-sentencing changes.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission received emotional testimony Wednesday as members weighed a proposal for drug-crime leniency. The main plan before them would cut two to three years off sentences for first-degree drug sales and reduce the severity levels assigned to first-degree drug possession and second-degree drug crimes. There would also be flexible sentences for other crimes and considerations for treatment for chemically dependent defendants.

The Star Tribune reported (https://strib.mn/1QYtLw3 ) that people with prior felony convictions spoke of their trouble escaping addictions that made them into criminals. Faith leaders and other backers of an overhaul said drug laws have been too draconian and exacerbated racial disparities in the prison system.

Randy Anderson, a three-time felon in recovery for a cocaine addiction, told the panel that the assumption that all dealers are dangerous is ludicrous. At the height of his addiction, he was charged with possessing more than 1,000 grams of cocaine.

“I didn’t burglarize, I didn’t assault anyone, hell, I even paid my taxes,” Anderson said.

Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said law enforcement is worried about sending the wrong message to drug dealers and users.

“At a time when the heroin trade is thriving in our communities, it is just not right to be reducing the sentence for anyone in the distribution chain and who is bringing this poison into our communities,” Small said.

The commission intends to vote next week on the plans to revise drug sentences. The leading proposal is from Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Christopher Dietzen. The changes would take hold in August unless the Legislature blocks them.

Analysts say the proposal would free up prison space, up to 523 beds by 2028.

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said incarceration is a tool to protect public safety.

“Longer incarceration of people is designed for who those we are afraid of, not just mad at,” he said.

Nathaniel Doehling, director of TakeAction Minnesota’s Justice4All Program, said before the hearing that the time is ripe for change.

“I myself have been incarcerated in the past and been labeled a thug, a criminal, a convict, instead of a leader, a human, a father, just being a person who made a mistake,” he said. “We’re the second worst state in the nation for black people to live in. The chains of Jim Crow have not left, they’ve just changed.”

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Information from: Star Tribune, https://www.startribune.com

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