Commission tables vote on changing sentencing guidelines for repeat offenders

By: - January 13, 2022 3:34 pm

Stillwater Prison. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday postponed a controversial vote that would have eliminated the practice of weighing the custody status of repeat criminal offenders during sentencing. 

The delay comes weeks after emotional public testimony against the plan.

Last month, fierce debate over the proposal lasted for hours and included testimony from lawmakers, police chiefs, crime victims and others. The commission also received more than 3,500 written comments on its plan, the vast majority of them opposing the proposal. 

The commission’s work has come under heightened scrutiny as the Twin Cities metro, like many large cities in the country, is experiencing a surge in violent crime.

Minnesota Republicans, at a news conference before the scheduled vote, criticized the plan as a DFL-led effort that would reduce public safety. 

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who moved to postpone the vote, issued a lengthy rebuttal to those who have attacked the plan, saying they misconstrued the issue. He also hit back at GOP lawmakers who say the commission is making policy without being held accountable to voters, noting that the Legislature created the commission and is made up of 11 members appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice and the governor.

“There should be no doubt that in this instance, the commission did exactly what the Legislature asked it to do,” he said. He also noted that members of the commission were divided on their support for the plan, including differences between members appointed by DFL Gov. Tim Walz. “This reality demonstrates the independence of the commission.” 

Schnell said the proposal should receive further consideration.

If approved, it would eliminate consideration of whether a repeat offender is in custody, on probation or on supervised release when they commit a new crime, which would impose a harsher sentence.

Advocates for the proposal say an offender’s criminal history and other factors are already considered under the sentencing guidelines. Most of the offenders are committing non-violent property crimes and some are driven by drug addiction, they argue. 

Commissioner Michelle Larkin, also a Minnesota Court of Appeals judge, disagreed with Schnell’s comments regarding the plan. 

“I’m not surprised by the backlash,” she said, noting that she opposes the plan for three reasons: “It’s not consistent with public safety, it does not have community support, and it sweeps too broadly.” 

Some members of the commission expressed disappointment at some of the criticism, saying it misrepresented the issue by conflating public safety with the push to create more equitable sentencing guidelines.

Minnesota GOP lawmakers said on Thursday saying they are considering legislation to limit the commission’s powers.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate judiciary committee, said lawmakers might consider requiring Senate confirmation of appointees to the commission.

In a statement after the tabled vote, he said: “This is good news for victims and the public… We will continue to review their activity with scrutiny to keep the public safe. A delay just means they may try to bring this up again, and we will be here to stop this reckless and unwanted policy from going forward.”

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