A GOP-led bill making its way through the Minnesota House would require the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission to get permission from the Legislature before it makes any modifications to state sentencing guidelines.
As things stand, the commission’s modifications to the sentencing guideline’s scoring grid automatically go into effect annually on Aug. 1 — unless the Legislature blocks or alters those changes. The guideline grid determines felony crimes’ severity levels and presumptive sentence duration.
House File 33, which passed in a split voice vote of the Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee on Tuesday, would change that system.
The bill was authored by Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center and Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, are its co-authors. All three are members of Public Safety, where Cornish is chair.
Johnson said Tuesday that HF 33 was prompted by the commission’s handling of last year’s drug sentencing reforms. The changes increased presumptive sentences for “kingpin” drug dealers while reducing presumptive sentences for small-time drug offenders, even doing away with mandatory minimum sentences.
Johnson said he was troubled by a commission proposal last year that would retroactively grant drug offenders reduced criminal history scores, even if their convictions were handed down before the law’s effective date of Aug. 1, 2016.
As early as last June, Johnson said, the commission was instructing probation officers doing presentence investigations to treat prior drug convictions as though they qualified for reduced criminal history scores under the 2016 reforms.
The commission actually walked back that policy before the 2017 legislative session even started. Its members voted 5-6 on Dec. 30 not to put retroactive scoring into effect. Nonetheless, Johnson cited that proposal’s narrow defeat as grounds to move his bill forward.
“There are 11 members on that commission,” he said. “Six members make a quorum, so four members can pass major changes to sentences in the state of Minnesota. I think that is wrong.”
He said that the commission’s job is not just to make sure that criminal sentences are handed down fairly in Minnesota. “They also have to look at the best interests and safety of the public,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I wonder if we’re getting that help.”
Cornish said he helped draft the bill after years of reading news reports about career criminals securing early release from prison due to lenient presumptive sentences, then getting released into the community only to reoffend with even worse crimes.
“It seems like you get three or four freebies,” Cornish said. “All we are trying to do here is find out what is happening in the community and let the Legislature take a closer look.”
Dems charge ‘micromanagement’
Democrats on the committee opposed the bill. Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, said it is pointless. The fact that the commission voted against its own policy proposal demonstrates that the system already in place works, he said.
Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, charged the bill’s authors with trying “micromanage” the commission. He said he has attended board hearings in the past and vouched for the board’s commitment to public safety.
He also noted that when formed in 1978, the commission’s stated purpose was to help the criminal justice system avoid being held hostage to kneejerk political reactions after horrendous, high profile crimes. “This bill will reverse that,” Considine said. “This will politicize what is going on.”
If the bill became law, he said, whichever party has a legislative majority at any given time would be able to manipulate sentencing rules at will. “So I can’t support this,” he said.
Kelly Mitchell, president of the National Association of Sentencing Commissions and a former executive director of the Minnesota commission, was the lone public testifier Tuesday. She said Minnesota’s commission was the nation’s first and still serves as a model both nationally and internationally.
She said it was intentionally formed as an independent agency composed of criminal justice experts. The Legislature serves as a brake on its proposals through its “legislative override” function, she said.
“If the Legislature is dissatisfied with the changes, it can enact a law,” she said. “The enacted law can take any action deemed appropriate by the Legislature, including blocking the change from taking effect.”
For example, in 2010, the Legislature delayed for a year a commission proposal to move prostitution and sex trafficking offenses off the Sentencing Guidelines’ standard grid onto its sex offender grid, she said.
Last year, the Legislature considered the commission’s drug sentencing reforms — a process that started in 2011 when Mitchell was still executive director and that wrapped up at the end of 2015. The plan was submitted during the 2016 legislative session. That was another example of the system functioning as designed, she said.
“Legislators looked at the proposal, decided it was not exactly the way they wanted drug policy to work in Minnesota and they changed it,” Mitchell said in an interview. “That is the way the system is supposed to work.”
Mitchell is concerned about Johnson’s bill, she said, because it threatens to change the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission from a semi-autonomous panel of experts into a group of lobbyists competing for lawmakers’ attention whenever sentencing changes are needed.
“It is not going to be a hotbed of expertise where the politics generally stay out,” Mitchell said. “It is going to be a hotbed of politics.”
HF 33 was scheduled to be heard by the Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee Thursday morning. Its companion, Senate File 368, has yet to be heard by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, that committee’s chair, is the Senate bill’s author.
The Sentencing Guidelines Commission is scheduled to meet on Thursday in St. Paul, according to Executive Director Nate Reitz. The bill likely will be discussed, he said.