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Minnesota sentencing commission postpones vote on repeat offender policy change

After receiving extensive public feedback, the commission voted unanimously to continue its study of the custody half-point.

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Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission Chair Kelly Lyn Mitchell, left, and Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, right, voted to postpone a re-write of the state's guidelines for sentencing a person charged with an offense while in custody or on probation.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday, Jan. 13, voted to hold off on considering a policy that could reduce criminal sentences for those who commit a crime while in custody, on probation or supervised release.

Minnesota judges use a point system to decide a person's criminal history score and that score, along with their conviction, determines the guideline for a sentence. Under current law, a person gets an additional half-point added to that criminal history score if they commit an offense while they're in jail or on supervision.

And that extra half-point could bump up their score and lengthen their sentence.

After receiving extensive public feedback, the commission voted unanimously to continue its study of the custody half-point. And supporters on the panel said they were hopeful that they could raise awareness about the issue and again weigh the change at a later date.

"It's clear to me 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," Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said. "We haven't done that."

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Police and sheriffs organizations, county attorneys and crime victims testified against the change last month, saying it could allow offenders to reenter the community and commit additional crimes. Thousands of Minnesotans also wrote to and testified before the panel on its proposal.

Roughly 95% of the 3,562 people who wrote to the commission voiced opposition, while the remaining 5% said they supported the change.

"When someone is on probation and they commit a new offense, they should be treated differently than somebody that committed the offense," First Judicial District Court Judge David Knutson said. "They are more culpable, they are more blameworthy, we owe it to society to hold them more accountable."

Defense attorneys, clergy and those who've experienced the criminal justice system supported its passage, saying the half-point most often affected those facing low-level drug and property crimes.

"It does not measure criminal history and it doesn't increase the severity of the crime that's committed. I also don't see that it increases the culpability of the person either," Chief Appellate Public Defender Cathryn Middlebrook said. "What it does is it adds punishment."

Ahead of the vote on Thursday, Republican state lawmakers urged the commission to reject the change. And they said that legislators planned to bring bills that would require Senate confirmation of commission appointees, along with other proposals that could impact how state criminal sentences get drafted in the coming legislative session.

"This is all done with the backdrop of a time when we have record-setting violent crime in the metropolitan area. It's hitting our suburbs as well and the last thing we need to do right now is to have lighter punishments for criminals," Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said.

Commission Chair Kelly Lyn Mitchell, along with several other members, said they were frustrated by the political rhetoric that developed around the commission's decision-making process. And they said they hoped that conversations around criminal sentencing could be centered on facts rather than political talking points.

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Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com.

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