Jan. 13—The 11-member Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission voted unanimously Thursday to postpone a vote on whether to do away with a half point in the guidelines that could affect the length of some felony sentences.
The commission, which met at the state Capitol with some members appearing remotely, plans to continue discussions and research, which could take up to a year, before putting together another proposal and holding another public hearing. Removing the half point would mean that judges would no longer consider whether the offender committed the crime while in custody, on probation or on supervised release.
Points in the guidelines are added depending on the severity of the felony and the offender's criminal history to determine an appropriate sentence length.
At a Nov. 4 meeting, the commission voted 6-4 on a proposal to do away with the in-custody point. At the time of the vote, a victims' representative was not seated on the commission.
Following a Dec. 16 public hearing, the commission was poised to finalize the decision with a vote Thursday. More than 3,000 members of the public commented on the proposed change, with the majority opposed.
Opponents say the timing is poor, considering what some see as a rise in violent crime and that it is appropriate to have offenders on probation be judged more harshly for committing crimes than first-time offenders.
Those in favor of eliminating the half point say it unduly punishes low level offenders and could free up 536 prison beds. They also say judges would retain discretion on final sentencing determinations.
Member Paul Schnell, who is also the state commissioner of corrections, outlined the motion in a three-page statement, in which he shot back at legislators and others he felt had stirred public sentiment over the proposal.
"The notion that maintaining the custody status is the difference between public safety or the lack of it is absurd," he said. "The truth is that the custody status point makes an average sentence only slightly longer — weeks to a number of months, in most cases. Belief that longer sentences yield increased public safety is contradicted by decades of research and data."
Schnell's motion included direction for the commission to make an effort to educate the community, system stakeholders and legislators on the implications of the policy. It also directed that in the interim, judges should round down whenever the half point is calculated for the purpose of determining the criminal history score.
Member Michelle Larkin, a Minnesota Court of Appeals judge, voted in favor of postponing the vote, but took issue with Schnell's position to eventually eliminate the half point, because she said it's not consistent with public safety, it does not have community support and it sweeps too broadly.
The postponement of the vote will allow the commission's newest member, victim representative Brooke Morath, to be part of the discussion. She was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz after the Nov. 4 vote had already been taken.
Morath, who was a victim of rape, said she will seek to find a balance between the data and the victim's lived experience.
Jeff Van Nest, policy fellow for Public Safety at the Center of the American Experiment, said he was relieved to hear of the postponement. The conservative think tank initiated a "call to action" regarding the vote.
"We are glad the system worked, and the commission listened to the thousands of Minnesotans who took the time to make their voice heard on this important public safety issue," he said.