A Republican-led push to strip power from an independent board that helps set criminal sentences cleared a key legislative committee Thursday morning, which moved the plan on to the House.
If the measure becomes law, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission would need to get approval from the Legislature before making any changes to the state’s sentencing framework, which judges rely on to calculate punishments based on an offender’s crime and history. The commission would turn into something closer to an advisory board to the Legislature — rather than a panel making independent decisions.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, co-author of the House bill, said the commission would still play an important role in deciding sentencing policy, but it needs to be reined in because it’s “not in tune with the times.” Cornish referenced concerns from law enforcement and newspaper stories about violent criminals with long rap sheets who, the lawmaker says, shouldn’t have been on the streets.
“Naturally, some amount of this is perception,” Cornish acknowledged. “But perception eventually becomes a reality when you see it enough. And you don’t want it in your community.”
Yet critics say this logic exemplifies the need for the commission: to keep politics out of sentencing by basing the guidelines on data, rather than individual emotionally charged anecdotes.
“If you start to legislate based on those cases, then all of our punishments are just going to go up and up and up to degrees that just aren’t necessary to protect public safety,” said Kelly Mitchell, former executive director for the commission, who runs a criminal justice institute at the University of Minnesota.
Lawmakers started the sentencing guidelines commission in 1980. It was the first board of its kind in the nation, and has since served as a model for other states creating similar systems, though how they weigh legislative input varies by state.
Part of the commission’s mission is to collect sentencing data that could help inform policy by predicting trends, such as a new felony charge passed by legislators that would lead to more prison resources. But its other function is to create some uniformity in sentencing, cutting down on unequal justice handed down by rogue judges. In individual cases, judges can still choose to depart from the guidelines by giving a lower or higher sentence.
When the Legislature passes a new law or raises the maximum penalty for a crime, the commission — made up by judges, law enforcement officials, attorneys and citizens — usually responds by recalibrating its guidelines.
In late 2015, the commission voted to reduce penalties for some drug offenders and better differentiate between users and sellers, based on data showing judges were frequently departing from the guidelines to give lower sentences. Under current law, the new guidelines would go into effect unless the Legislature actively intervened.
This catalyzed a bipartisan drug reform bill — the most significant in decades — though Republicans like Cornish and bill author Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said they weren’t happy with the compromise.
At the committee hearing Thursday, Johnson said the guidelines commission went “way too far” in its original proposal, which is in part why he introduced the bill.
Though the guidelines commission does hold public meetings, Johnson opined that only he and one other member of the House Public Safety Committee had ever attended one.
“For me, I think it’s important that we discuss these things in the open,” he said.
The bill passed the Government Operations and Elections Policy with minimal dissent, meaning it will advance in the House.
Mitchell testified against the bill, arguing the commission has been working as it was intended to. She said the Legislature has voted only three times in the past decade to override a guidelines change, and allows the state to delegate data-based research to the commission, giving the Legislature more time to focus on the most serious criminal issues.
“There is simply no reason to change the system to require legislative approval,” she said. “The system is working as it’s supposed to. It isn’t broken.”