Minnesota imprisons 194 people per 100,000 population, fourth lowest in the country, but the prison numbers are increasing the fifth fastest in the country.
The next lowest number of prisoners in the region is North Dakota, with 214 per 100,000; the country’s average is 471.
Minnesota’s prison growth rate for the past decade is fifth fastest in the country — trailing West Virginia, Idaho, North Dakota and Arizona — and the state is short 565 prison beds. The state Correction Department projects that shortage to more than double to 1,202 by 2022 if nothing is done.
Minnesota had 6,428 prisoners in 2001, 10,116 are locked up this year and the 2022 prediction is for 10,761 inmates.
“I believe Minnesota can do better,” Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, declared at the beginning of a prison population task force meeting he and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, convened Friday.
The task force, made up of legislators and people connected to the prison system, is to look into whether to increase prison beds, examine ways to keep people out of prison or any other solution to the bed shortage.
Task force members did not generally dispute the numbers from the state Corrections Department, but there was a divergence about what should be done. The group is to continue meeting until the Legislature convenes March 8.
Cornish said that many of his constituents see no problem with the prisons, and they prefer locking up criminals.
“It would be a hard sell to the House of Representatives to greatly increase our spending when we have such a good record of incarceration,” Cornish said about the Republican-controlled chamber.
Latz said he wanted to form the task force to examine prisons, even though other lawmakers do not appear overly interested in the topic.
“I haven’t really hard one way or the other…” Latz said. “I can’t say there has been a legislative groundswell from outside these (public safety and judiciary) committees.”
The issue arose, in part, because the Corrections Department is considering asking the state to borrow more than $140 million to add 500 beds to a Rush City prison. However, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told the task force, Gov. Mark Dayton has not been fully briefed on prison needs and has not decided whether to support the request.
One question was why prison populations rose while crime fell 10 percent in a decade.
The answer is multipart, but a major reason is because legislators have increased prison time for specific crimes, Roy said.
For one thing, lawmakers expanded sex offender sentences after the 2003 Grand Forks, N.D., kidnapping and death of Dru Sjodin at the hands of a sex offender just released from a Minnesota prison.
Since 2000, the sex offender population has jumped 466 inmates, Roy’s figures show They are up 1,496 for all crimes against people, including murders and assaults.
Those in for drugs upped prison population by 905 in 15 years, 881 for methamphetamine-related crimes.
In recent years, sentences have increased for some weapons crimes, domestic violence and drunken driving. All added to the prison population.
Those convicted to prison are coming from across Minnesota. Roy reported that prison sentences for greater Minnesota residents are up 8.5 percent, while those in the Twin Cities increased 7.3 percent.
Three of the five counties with the most increases came from outside the Twin Cities: St. Louis, Otter Tail and Douglas.
Corrections Department officials said besides longer sentences, other factors contribute to added prisoners. One of the big factors is how law enforcement agencies and county attorneys decide to enforce the law and prosecute crimes.
Roy said the state is making it through the prison bed shortage, in part, by putting two bunks in cells meant for one. That, he said, added 1,200 beds.
In 2009, 700 beds were added to the Faribault prison.
County jails also house more than 500 state prisoners.
Among options the task force is to consider is whether some prisoners, such as those in for drug crimes, could avoid prison if they were sentenced to treatment programs.