Sentencing guidelines commission delays vote on enhanced penalties for crimes committed while on probation, parole

13January 2022

Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission decided Thursday to push back its final vote on a controversial proposal that could shorten sentences for people who commit crimes while on probation or parole.

The board unanimously agreed with a proposal by Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell to postpone the vote, after he cited impassioned public input and dismay over the political polarization sparked by the debate.

“What I’m troubled by is how, at least in part, this discussion has devolved into exactly what this body was created to avoid — the use of rhetoric versus principled policy making guided by thoughtful research,” Schnell said Thursday.

The debate has inflamed partisan tensions over public safety amid a heightened focus by legislators from both parties on violent crime spikes around the Twin Cities and elsewhere. It is also teeing up what could be a major showdown in Minnesota’s divided Legislature and on the 2022 campaign trail.

Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines work on a point system that accounts for the severity of the crime and an offender’s criminal history. The commission’s consideration over whether to eliminate a half-point assigned for custody status has stoked concerns over whether it would lead to lighter punishment for repeat offenders.

“This allows criminals who have already been given a break for probation instead of prison time even less incentive to follow the rules or follow the law,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s public safety and judiciary committee. “The last thing we need to do right now is to have less punishment for criminals.”

Supporters of the change have hailed its potential for lessening sentences for low-level drug and property crimes, which data show are most commonly charged in cases of people offending while on probation or parole.

Justin Terrell, executive director for the Minnesota Justice Research Center, said that the spate of homicides, carjackings and other crimes rocking communities in recent years have all occurred under the existing sentencing guidelines structure. Keeping the custody status point in place does nothing to deter crime, he said.

“What I really don’t want to see is us start to think that we can punish our way out of this,” Terrell said. “My position on the custody point is that it doesn’t do anything to advance public safety and it doesn’t do anything to build safe communities. What it does is basically doubles down on a punishment that no one is considering when they commit a crime.”

Republican state legislative leaders gathered before Thursday’s vote to implore Gov. Tim Walz to intervene, pointing out that the governor appointed eight members of the 11-person commission.

Limmer accused the commission of reflecting a partisan agenda that “puts criminals ahead of victims.”

Limmer said Thursday that he plans to reintroduce legislation he proposed in previous years that would require Senate confirmation of Sentencing Guidelines Commission members. Limmer also proposed abolishing the commission in the past, but stopped short of saying he would push for that again.

Republicans are also preparing legislation focused on county prosecutors who choose not to charge certain felony crimes. Sen. Paul Gazelka, an East Gull Lake Republican and candidate for governor, planned to announce a new bill on prosecutorial discretion at a press conference on Friday.

Last month, Walz said that he trusts the commission’s “vast swath of expertise.”

“I think trying to tell Minnesotans that this [change] is somehow going to make them less safe is simply not true,” Walz said. “You can’t lock your way up and imprison your way out of some of these things, but you can be smart about making sure the most violent offenders are not out.”

The commission agreed last November, on a 6-4 vote, to advance its proposal. During its deliberations, it received more than 3,500 public comments – 95% of which opposed eliminating the custody status points.

All three of the state’s major law enforcement associations and the County Attorneys Association oppose the measure. Robert Small, executive director of the latter group, said that “our view is if a person is under some type of supervision and commits a new offense, they’re more culpable than a person who is not under supervision.”

Doing away with the custody status point, he said, “doesn’t make sense.”

The commission is revisiting an issue it first took up in 2019 when it reduced the original one-point enhancement for custody status to a half point. That led to criminal history scores coming in with an extra half point and the question of whether judges should round up or down when considering the severity of a sentence to impose.

Schnell told the commission on Thursday that it needed to “make concerted efforts to engage and educate community members, system stakeholders, and legislators as we further assess the implications of the custody status point policy.”

“When I think about all the public input — whether for or against — whether grounded in principled argument, one of the thousands of solicited one-click emails, or rhetoric of fear — it’s clear that we, as members of this commission, have more work to do to help our fellow Minnesotans understand and consider the true implications of custody status,” he said. “We haven’t done that.

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