Posted: 04/29/16 13:00
by Dave Mindeman
A crime legislation compromise proposal is being classified as "historic" in terms of changes made to the sentencing structure of drug related offenses.
After weeks of closed-door wrangling between law enforcement, defense attorneys and lawmakers, a compromise has been reached on an effort at the Capitol to lighten criminal penalties for drug offenders statewide.
I am not sure why this had to be a "closed door" negotiation, but that is how this came to be. And there are some good things here:
1. In general "sentencing guidelines" -- the amount of prison time a convicted criminal will be presumed to get when sentenced by a judge -- for all drug crimes, will be reduced, regardless of degree.
2. Additionally, the amount of confiscated drugs required to trigger a charge has been increased for drugs like heroine, methamphetamine or cocaine. (Marijuana is a different story which will be discussed below).
3. It would define what a "trace" amount of drugs is -- a definition that has been lacking in current law and leading to a lot of law enforcement discretionary interpretation. And possession charges for trace amounts would become a gross misdemeanor, rather than a felony for a first offense.
4. Sentences for what prosecutors have called "kingpin" dealers -- those possessing or selling especially large quantities of drugs -- would become mandatory, unalterable by a judge. Also, if the accused possessed a gun, the old, harsher sentencing levels would stay in place, in addition to being mandatory. Prior law didn't differentiate much from users and dealers.
5. Mandatory penalties would be eliminated on lesser-degree drug crimes, allowing judges to be more lenient.
If utilized properly, these guidelines could reduce the incarceration rate in Minnesota prisons and give judges more latitude.
But there is one very troubling and puzzling provision....
For marijuana, on the other hand, the 100 kg required for a first-degree possession charge has been reduced to 50 kg.
In other words, marijuana was actually singled out for harsher restrictions.
This compromise was agreed to because....
Defense attorneys noted that Minnesota's marijuana thresholds are extraordinarily permissive compared to most other states, and agreed to allow them to become more strict.
I have trouble understanding why marijuana, which has medicinal legality in Minnesota, would get treated the opposite of other illegal drugs. Especially when the purpose of this compromise is to lighten the load on our prisons. Why not just leave marijuana alone? What difference does it make that our current laws are "permissive", when the tendency in the country moves towards complete legalization?
I expect that the law enforcement establishment lobbied for this. They seem to have some kind of inherent bias against marijuana and cling to decades old ideas and stereotypes about this drug.
The compromise guidelines will probably move through the legislature fairly quickly...because it has law enforcement's blessing. The marijuana aspect is troubling, but as the mood of the country changes on recreational use, maybe it won't make any difference in the long run. However, in the short term, marijuana possession will, ironically, be treated worse than your basic heroin and cocaine user.
That just feels wrong.