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Fewer crimes but more inmates: Minnesota grapples with overflowing prisons

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Even as the crime rate has fallen in recent years, Minnesota has been incarcerating more people – and now the number of inmates has overflowed the state's existing prisons.

A new Prison Population Task Force is looking at what the state can do about the problem and held its first hearing Friday.

WCCO reports the Corrections Department says it's already renting beds for 560 prisoners at county jails across Minnesota and the space crunch is not projected to get any better.

Corrections Commissioner Tom Ray told the task force his department proposes spending more than $140 million to add 500 beds to the prison in Rush City, but added that Gov. Mark Dayton has not been briefed on the plan's details nor made any decision about whether to endorse the request, Forum News Service reports.

Some task force members wondered if lighter prison sentences or beefed-up treatment for chemical dependency and mental illness would help, MPR News reports.

But the network notes that with every state legislator up for re-election next year, lawmakers are probably not anxious to appear soft on crime.

Crimes down, prisoners up

Session Daily says numbers from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension show Minnesota still has the fourth-lowest incarceration rate among the states. But the inmate population is growing much faster in Minnesota than elsewhere.

The BCA's numbers show that while reported crimes dropped 27 percent from 2003 through 2013, the state's prison population grew 31 percent during that decade.

Why the discrepancy?

MinnPost looked at that question this summer and concluded that harsher penalties are the biggest reason.

Forum News says Corrections Commissioner Roy told the task force Friday the answer is multifaceted, but said increased prison time for several crimes is a big part of it.

Roy cited 2003 as a watershed year in Minnesota's treatment of sex offenders, Forum News says, noting that a recently released offender's conviction for kidnapping and murdering University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin led to harsher penalties.

Roy said Minnesotans are also serving more prison time for drug crimes, weapons violations, domestic violence, and drunk driving, Forum News reports.

The Prison Population Task Force plans to give legislators some options for how to respond to the space crunch when state lawmakers meet in St. Paul again next spring.

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