By Heather Brown

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – On Thursday, a group of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators announced a plan to give reduced prison sentences to some non-violent drug offenders as well as give judges more discretion in sentencing.

“We believe there are people who are incarcerated today for lengthy sentences at great expense who frankly should not be in those prisons,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.

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Within the federal prison system, half of all prisoners are there for drug-related offenses, but the makeup of the state’s prisoners is much different. So, what crimes send people to prison? Good Question.

At the end of 2014, there were 1.56 million people in the prison system in the U.S. That’s down 1 percent from 2013 but up dramatically from 1980, when the prison population stood at 330,000.

“We’re locking up more people, but we’re locking them up for longer periods of time,” said Brad Colbert, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. “I think we had a couple of really big crimes and the idea was a response to that.”

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About 87 percent of prisoners are in state facilities. In Minnesota, 19 percent are there for drugs, 17 percent for criminal sexual conduct, 14 percent for homicide and 8 percent for assault.

The average Minnesota prisoner is 37 years old. More than half are white and just over a third are black in a state where African-Americans make up just 6 percent of the population.

“That’s a huge problem for the people who are locked up but also for the people in the community,” said Colbert.

In the federal system, the crimes that put people behind bars are different. Just over half of all federal prisoners are in for drug offenses, 36 percent for public order convictions like weapons or immigration and 7 percent for violent crimes.

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“The federal system has gotten heavily involved in the prosecution of crimes in the past 30 years,” Colbert said. “They’ve seen a giant increase in their population and a lot of that is drug-related.”

Heather Brown