The state’s sentencing guidelines commission is expected this month to recommend a series of policy changes that could lead to shorter prison terms in some cases while toughening penalties for repeat violent offenders.
Under a set of reforms passed unanimously by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Dec. 20, judges could waive “custody status points” in certain crimes committed while on probation, parole or other forms of release for a past conviction. Those points factor into an inmate’s suggested sentence.
How long criminal history scores would factor into sentences for those who commit a crime after serving probation in a prior case would also be affected under a tweak to the state’s “decay” policy. Under the current policy, those convicted of a crime 15 years after completing probation won’t have that past offense count against them. The new policy would instead start the 15-year clock at the date of sentencing and not after the person is finished with probation.
“All of these changes wisely steward the limited correctional resources of the state,” Chairman Christopher Dietzen, a retired state Supreme Court justice, said during the commission’s Dec. 20 meeting. “I know that our staff has done some work on the potential reduction in prison beds as a result of these changes and that potential, in my opinion, is significant and is an important consideration.”
The proposed changes will be part of the commission’s annual report to lawmakers, which will be finalized at its next meeting Jan. 10. The commission has until Jan. 15 to send recommendations to the Legislature. If the Legislature does not take further action on the proposals, the changes would then take effect Aug. 1.
The commission clarified that its proposed changes would not apply retroactively, citing a recent Minnesota Supreme Court case in which justices sided with a man who was awaiting sentencing for a drug conviction that occurred before the Drug Sentencing Reform Act was adopted and provided a lower potential sentence.
During the commission’s last hearing, Executive Director Nathaniel Reitz said that because the guideline changes would cover much more than just drug cases, the task of applying them retroactively would have created “confusion on a much larger scale.”
Not making the changes retroactive was a sticking point for groups like the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. Bob Small, the association’s director, told the commission last month that it would likely have pulled support otherwise.
Not all of the changes would lead to shorter sentences. The commission recommended adding a new “sentence modifier” for repeat “severe violent offenses,” which would tack an additional one to three years onto a person’s presumptive sentence.
Reitz estimated that the guideline modifications could produce a drop of 536 to 666 prison beds needed in Minnesota by the end of fiscal year 2040.
Those who testified before the Dec. 20 vote offered a blend of support for the steps toward reform and dismay over what they considered insufficient efforts to turn back the tide of mass incarceration.
“You’ve got to understand that everybody’s … situation is different and if we are to be defined by our worst act in life then it really does not give one a second chance to rehabilitate themselves,” said Brian Fullman, an organizer for the interfaith group Isaiah Minnesota, at a Dec. 13 hearing. “It doesn’t give us a chance to become productive citizens in our society.”
Fullman described criminal history scores and other related labels as “gray clouds” that have an adverse effect on “the moral fiber of a human being.” He urged against deploying “more punishment, more labels and more titles as a way to turn things around when it comes to repetitive lawbreaking.”
“What we need is more investment to find out why people are doing what they’re doing,” Fullman said.