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Being tough on crime can be expensive for taxpayers


High-profile crimes are very problematic for politicians. When something like the murder of Dru Sjodin occurred in 2003, it leads to a panicked "How could this have happened" mindset among legislators, who want to be known for keeping people safe. While the incident was horrific and every parent's nightmare, imagine a world where traffic fatalities were treated in a similar fashion.

The Minnesota State Highway Patrol would need 10,000 officers and photo radar and red light cameras would be placed on every road and intersection. Causing a highway death would lead to a life sentence. Highway fatalities would fall, but the resulting system would be enormously expensive to maintain, as the prisons filled to overflowing.


Unsurprisingly, every time the legislature increases penalties for crimes in the state, the cost of the system increases. Incarceration is expensive and creating new crimes and new and longer sentences for existing crimes adds up.

Minnesota has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but that is not saying much in a nation that has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The ripple-effect set off by the enhancements to penalties after the Sjodin case is now starting to be felt by the state budget, as the Corrections Department runs out of beds in prisons. Building prisons is very expensive and given the experience of other states, should only be considered as a last resort.

Since election year politics makes it unlikely that there will be any sentencing reform at the state-level next year, we may have to wait another year for meaningful reform. Adjusting how some chemical dependency and mental illness cases are handled could reduce some costs, but the solutions to those issues are neither simple nor inexpensive, which means the legislature may be poorly equipped to effectively deal with that issue.

Source:, "Fewer crimes but more inmates: Minnesota grapples with overflowing prisons," William Wilcoxen, September 25, 2015

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Joseph S. Friedberg Chartered

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