19 June 2006

Minnesota Sentencing Policies

Minnesota manages to put far fewer people in prison than Colorado, about 8,613 in mid-2004 in Minnesota (2004 population 5.1 million) v. 19,756 at the same time in Colorado (2004 population 4.6 million). Minnesota keeps prison populations low by being selective about who really needs to be in prison to protect the public, and who can be dealt with in the community. "Minnesota has 135,000 under supervision in the community, and Colorado has 50,000."

Minnesota now, is imprisoning people at a rate similar to that of Colorado in 1992. The growth in Colorado's prison population has largely been a function of new sentencing laws.

Who is in prison in Minnesota and Colorado?

What does the makeup of Minnesota's prison population look like? According to the Department of Corrections in Minnesota:

Violent Crimes Other Than Rape 31%
Criminal Sexual Conduct 17%
Weapons 4%
Drugs 24%
Property Crimes 13%
Driving While Intoxicated 5%
Other 5%

Minnesota has 438 people serving life sentences, including 31 with a possibility of parole.

In Colorado the breakdown is:

Violent Crimes Other Than Rape 30%
Sex Offenses 11%
Weapons 4% (includes menancing)
Drugs 22% (includes share of habitual non-violent felon)
Property Crimes 23% (includes share of habitual non-violent felon)
Traffic 1%
Other 10%

Colorado has 1,687 people serving life sentences (1,313 with a possibility of parole), and 2 people on death row.

Surprisingly, the proportion of people in each state in prison for violent crimes, weapons and drugs isn't all that different, proportionately, which suggests that for those crimes, Minnesota is proportionately more inclined to use community corrections, for example, with earlier parole dates, than Colorado.

Minnesota is far less likely imprison people for property crimes like theft, burglary, vandalism and fraud, than Colorado. Minnesota has just 1,152 people in prison for property crimes. Colorado has about 4,544. Thus, Minnesota has about 75% fewer people in prison for property crimes than Colorado (in raw numbers), despite having only 12% fewer property crimes (in raw numbers, and thus considering both differing crime rates and differing populations). Minnesota is also much less likely than Colorado to impose long sentences for escape and contraband, which makes up two-thirds of the "other" category in Colorado.

Minnesota is more than twice as likely to imprison people for drunk driving. And, Minnesota takes sex offenses more seriously relative to other crimes, although absolute sentences of incarceration are probably still shorter in Minnesota for these crimes than in Colorado.

The number of life without possiblity of parole sentences in each state, normally reserved in each case for capital murder, is comparable with Minnesota's slightly larger number likely reflecting its larger population. So incarceration rates of aggravated murder are nearly identifical.

But, Colorado has far more people serving life sentences with possibility of parole, two-thirds of whom, in Colorado, are sex offenders, and 9% of whom, in Colorado, are habitual non-violent offenders. Kidnapping cases and older murder sentences make up most of the balance of the life sentences with possibility of parole in Colorado. Most of the life sentences with possibility of parole in Minnesota are probably older murder cases.

Fewer People In Prison, Yet Less Crime

Minnesota also has a considerably lower violent crime rate than Colorado (262.6 per 100,000 in Minnesota v. 345.1 per 100,000 in Colorado), and also has less property crime (3116.8 per 100,000 in Minnesota v. 3940.9 per 100,000 in Colorado). Why?

What isn't reducing crime rates in Minnesota?

Contary to those who claim low crimes rates are largely a function of high imprisonment rates, the state with fewer people in prison, Minnesota, has less crime. Studies have shown that dramatically higher imprisonment rates have had only a minor effect on crime rates, producing, perhaps 25% of the reduction in crime that we have experienced. Alternately, Minnesota has lower crime rates because it has more people under correctional supervision than Colorado, and parole and probation are far more effective than they are usually given credit for being by policy makers. The downside of having the 11,000 less serious felony offenders on parole instead of prison, may be made up for by the upside of having about 78,000 more convicted felons under at least some kind of community supervision.

Immigration can't explain the difference. In Colorado, foreign born persons are about a third less likely to be in prison than native born persons, on a per capita basis.

Race baiting also doesn't explain the difference. Colorado population is 4.2% black, while Minnesota's population is 3.3% black, a difference that can't imaginably be behind such a huge difference in prison populations.

The Rocky notes that one pop economist sees increased numbers of abortions as a factor in crime rates.
He found the four strongest factors in cutting crime were . . . legalized abortion and the resulting decline in unwanted babies. Studies have shown unwanted children are more likely to become criminals.
This doesn't work either. Abortion in legal in both Colorado and Minnesota. But, in 2000, the abortion rate per 1,000 women aged 15-44 years old in Colorado was 15.9 and it was 13.5 in Minnesota. This trend is long standing and goes back at least as far as 1992, with Minnesota consistently having lower abortion rates. Indeed, the gap between Colorado and Minnesota in abortion rates was much larger in 1992 than it is now.

The states' per capita personal incomes are similar: In Colorado it is $36,063, while in Minnesota it is $35,861. Their unemployment rates aren't identical, 5.5% in 2004 in Colorado v. 4.7% in Minnesota in 2004, but neither are they incredibily different.

What is behind lower crime rates in Minnesota?

One clue to what Minnesota is doing but Colorado is now, is how the respective states treat the poor. The poverty rate in 2003-2004 in Colorado was 9.9%, while in Minnesota it was 7.2%, yet there are far more people on welfare (TANF) in Minnesota (27,310) than in Colorado (9,593). Colorado likewise has 17% of the population without health insurance, while Minnesota has 8.9% who lack health insurance.

Also, Minnesota has a significantly higher high school graduation rate (82.3%) than Colorado (69.6%). Why does this matter? "77 percent of inmates in the state and federal prisons across the nation do not have a high school diploma, according to a 2003 report by the U.S. Department of Justice."

Low imprisonment rates save Minnesota large sums of money. By spending more money on social services and less on prisons, Minnesota has produced a lower crime rate, and avoided creating a costly prison complex which has to a great extent, if not completely, paid for those social services.

(All statistics not found in linked materials are from the World Almanac and Book of Facts 2006.)

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