Proposed change to MN's sentencing guidelines draws flak

Stone sign outside Stillwater prison.
Guard towers and fencing surrounds the Stillwater Correctional Facility in October 2019 in Stillwater, Minn. A proposal before the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission would reduce sentences for some felons.
John Minchillo | AP Photo 2019

Several Republican legislators criticized a proposal that could result in reduced prison time for some felons in Minnesota.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, told the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission Thursday that he was very concerned about the plan.

“This proposal seems to be to me going in the direction of being soft on crime,” Limmer said.

Technically, the proposal would eliminate a point on the existing guidelines based on a person’s custody status. The point system is used to determine sentences: the more points, the higher the sentence. Supporters of the change say it would at least temporarily free up more than 500 prison beds. 

Rep. Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, also raised concerns about the plan and said that Minnesotans simply don’t want the change.

“An unelected board with little notice to, or attention from, the public is pushing drastic changes to our sentencing laws that put the public at risk,” Neu Brindley said.

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The panel is made up of state corrections officials, judges, law enforcement and members of the public. The commission will adopt or reject the proposed changes at its meeting in January.

Despite concerns raised by opponents, Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell noted that even with the proposed change, judges would maintain the latitude to consider aggravating factors.

“Allowing for those cases where there has been a previous offense and a re-offense, under certain conditions, to receive a sentence up to the statutory maximum,” Schnell said.

Supporters of the change contend it would help promote rehabilitation and save taxpayer money by freeing up prison space.

Opponent Kelly Janssen, of the group Child Protection League, rejected the argument of a financial benefit.

"Our government spends millions of dollars every year on web sites, empty storage buildings, rest areas, bus stops, bike lanes and trails,” Janssen said. “It defies logic that your justification for these reductions for incarceration is money."

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL- St. Paul, the chair of the House Public Safety Committee, pushed back against the criticism from Republican lawmakers. He also urged the commission to remain independent in its process and not allow the issue to be politicized.

“The general public and the politicians who serve them, like me, tend to reflexively support punitive sentencing measures that often fail to promote public safety and result in needless deprivation of freedom, burdensome taxpayer cost and unimaginable racial and regional disparities,” Mariani said.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz shared some thoughts on the proposal earlier this week, saying he thinks the commission will make sure the most violent criminals remain locked up.

“Trying to tell Minnesotans that this is somehow going to make them less safe is simply not true,” Walz said. “The sentencing commission is made up of a vast swath of expertise. So, I would expect them to make the right decision on that, to be smart about what it takes for Minnesota to keep Minnesotans safe.“