A proposed change to Minnesota sentencing guidelines that could shorten sentences for people who commit crimes while on probation or parole was met with pushback Thursday from critics who argued it would give a pass to repeat offenders.
State sentencing guidelines, which work on a point system, take into account the severity of the crime and an offender's criminal history, including prior felonies, misdemeanors and custody status. The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is considering doing away with the points assigned to custody status, a change that could effectively lead to lighter punishment for repeat offenders, as higher point totals generally amount to longer sentences.
During a public hearing Thursday at the state Capitol, critics raised concerns about giving such leniency amid recent rises in violent crimes.
"Minnesotans are not asking you to do this," House Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, told the commission. "We are tired of preventable tragedies committed by people who have broken the law but are not being held accountable by our judicial system."
Supporters of the change said it would give a needed break to people who commit low-level drug and property crimes, who data show are the ones most commonly penalized for offending while on probation or parole.
"The emphasis on incarcerating these offenders and inattention to solving violent crimes is a major source of criminal justice dysfunction in this country," said Will Cooley of Decarcerate Minnesota. "Imprisoning drug users increases the likelihood of premature death."
Lars Negstad, policy director for the statewide faith coalition ISAIAH, said treating people who commit crimes while in custody differently from first-time offenders keeps them "trapped in their past rather than offering them a pathway to rehabilitation and reconciliation."
Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, argued the opposite. People who are under supervision for a previously committed crime should be expected to follow the law, not violate it, he said.
"For the guidelines to no longer consider an added consequence for this behavior is not good for public safety, it's not good for fairness," Small said. "It's just not good policy to reward the noncompliant supervised offender."
Other law enforcement groups, such as the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, also spoke against the proposal, as did testifiers concerned about sex crimes.
Most offenders are assigned a half point for committing a crime while in custody, but sex offenders are assigned two points, lengthening their punishment for re-offending.
Several of those testifying asked the commission to keep the in-custody point system for sex offenders, specifically. But a few commissioners said that likely is not necessary because a provision in state guidelines allowing courts to punish sex offenders who commit a new crime "up to the statutory maximum" would remain in place even if the custody status points were eliminated.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, spoke against the proposal and accused Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and other members of the sentencing guidelines commission of acting as "de-facto legislators."
"Despite the fact that you don't have an election certificate, the difference between you and I when we make public policy decisions is that I as a legislator are accountable to the public," said Limmer, chairman of the Senate judiciary and public safety committee. "I have an election and I have to justify my decisions … and you do not."
Limmer's DFL counterpart, House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee Chair Rep. Carlos Mariani, testified in support of the sentencing guidelines commission, which he said was established to operate "independent of political interference."
"I value this commission because at its best and as intended, it is a space dedicated to ensuring that objective data, analysis and community conversations drive decisions," Mariani said.
Republicans have noted that DFL Gov. Tim Walz appoints eight of the commission's 11 members. At a news conference Wednesday, Walz said 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 sentencing guidelines commission will vote on the proposal on Jan. 13. In November, the panel voted 6-4 to move it forward to a hearing.