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Minnesota leaders team up to overhaul drug crime sentences

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Minnesota leaders unveiled a plan to reduce the criminal punishment for many drug crimes Friday morning.

Minnesota county attorneys, police and state lawmakers discussed the proposed changes which build upon an earlier reform proposed by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

The plan will reduce the severity for punishment of first and second degree drug crimes. It also proposes the laws differentiate drug users from dealers – with dealers getting harsher punishments.

The proposal notes that Minnesota's current laws don't do a very good job of distinguishing between criminals and addicts, saying both are now being treated the same.

State Public Defender for Minnesota Bill Ward says there are too many people in prisons that need of drug treatment, but are stuck serving long prison sentences. He says the proposal will change that.

Offenders with larger amounts of illegal substances will face longer prison times, however the proposal brings fifth degree offenses down from a felony to a gross misdemeanor. A second offense would be a felony, though.

The Pioneer Press says first degree offenders would also see a decrease in sentences. Right now, the sentence is just over seven years, it would drop to a little more than five years.

Additionally, the proposal would increase the amount of some drugs – narcotics, but not heroin – needed in order to be considered a possession crime. The threshold would be doubled from 25 grams to 50 grams. Read the details here.

People who possess a firearm will have the original 25 gram threshold though.

And those who are caught with a "trace" of some drug – a single dosage unit – would only get a gross misdemeanor, not a felony offense.

The changes are set to take place by August, unless the Legislature rejects them.

Overcrowding in prisons

Minnesota's prisons and correctional facilities currently hold about 560 inmates more than capacity, according to the House. That gap is expected to more than double by 2022 if nothing changes.

Last month, KARE 11 reported that Minnesota has the fifth fastest growing prison population in the country.

In July, 20 percent of people in prison had been sentenced for drug-related crimes, MinnPost reports.

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