Drug sentencing laws need reform

It’s unusual to find defense attorneys, police officers and prosecutors all in agreement with one another. But last Friday, a coalition of leaders from a wide variety of institutions announced a plan to enact sweeping drug sentencing reforms in Minnesota.

The plan would lower several mandatory minimum drug sentences, allow more drug offenders to participate in early release programs and introduce addiction rehabilitation programs for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders while homing in on “kingpin” drug dealers. It would also create harsher penalties for those with large quantities of marijuana and for offenders with “aggravating factors,” such as the possession of a firearm.

Drug sentencing reform is long overdue in Minnesota. Mandatory minimum sentences are a driving factor in perpetuating mass incarceration in our state and across the country.

Mass incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color. Thirty-seven percent of Minnesota’s prison population is black, despite the fact that African-Americans only make up 6 percent of our state’s population as a whole.

While the proposals for rehabilitation programs and lower mandatory minimum sentences are exceedingly important, the most impressive aspect of Friday’s reform package was the degree of compromise between criminal justice groups that oftentimes oppose one another.

We urge legislators to adopt a similar attitude toward cooperation and compromise in order to work across the aisle to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform. They should seek not only to lower incarceration rates but also to help restore justice for those communities which mandatory minimum drug sentences disproportionately affect.