State commission proposal to modify sentences for repeat offenders sparks fierce debate

The plan would end consideration of custody status in sentencing for repeat offenders

By: - December 17, 2021 8:00 am

Stillwater Prison. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections.

A proposal from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to no longer consider a repeat criminal offender’s custody status at sentencing generated fierce debate on Thursday, with a list of testifiers that included lawmakers, police chiefs, crime victims and others.

The commission, made up of 11 members appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice and the governor, has proposed to modify the state’s criminal sentencing guidelines. The plan calls for ending the consideration of whether a repeat offender is in custody, on probation or on supervised release when they commit a new crime. 

Advocates for the proposal say the offender’s criminal history and other factors are already considered under the sentencing guidelines, arguing the custody status point only serves to impose an unnecessarily harsher sentence, particularly for low-level offenders. 

“We need to keep level heads,” said Justin Terrell, executive director of Minnesota Justice Research Center. “This custody point does not keep us safer.” 

Opponents of the plan say the proposal would adopt a “soft on crime” stance that Minnesota cannot afford during a surge in violent crime in the Twin Cities metro, which includes hundreds of carjackings. 

Robert Small, who spoke for the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said he opposed the changes, arguing it would make communities less safe. He said he was more inclined to impose a tougher sentence for someone who is on parole. 

“They are more culpable for the flagrant disregard” of a previous sentence, he said. The plan is “not good for public safety. It’s not good for fairness. And it’s not good for sentencing policy.”

The commission drew attacks from GOP lawmakers who testified, arguing the commission is an unelected body making decisions without being responsive to voters. 

“We as a state have to live with your decisions,” state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said. “How do you feel about being de facto legislators?”

Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Public Policy committee, said the proposal is misguided. “This is not the time for criminal justice going wild. This is the time to protect public safety,” he said.

House GOP lawmakers, including Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, repeatedly referenced violent crime, a theme they have made a focus in recent months. 

“We are tired of carjackings. We are tired of catalytic converter thefts,” she said.

State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, pushed back against those criticisms, saying the commission was created to be insulated from electoral politics. 

“I felt the need to speak out on this because of the recent political activity around this proposal,” said Mariani, who is chair of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy committee. “Today, some politicians are testifying against any action taken by the commission because it is acting independently of their partisan political prerogatives.”

Members of the commission at times interjected to remind testifiers of previous moves to create tougher sentences for certain severe violent offenders. 

Commission Vice Chair Valerie Estrada, for instance, asked Limmer if he recalled that the commission had approved a severe violent offender enhancement, lengthening prison time for such offenders. 

“I vaguely remember that,” he said.

Some victims of crime shared their stories, arguing the commission should not reduce sentences for criminals. 

The commission is expected to vote on the plan at its next meeting on Jan. 13.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.