How old drug offenses could impact future sentences

The past often sways the future when judges are handing down sentences. But, how much weight should past drug offenses carry? The answer is being considered by the Minnesota Sentencing Commission.

State sentencing guidelines include criminal history as a factor influencing a sentence — a past of more serious convictions usually leads to a longer prison sentence.

However, a major drug reform law, effective last August, lowered the sentences for certain drug crimes, while raising the amount of drugs a person could have before receiving a more severe charge.

Therefore, a person arrested for a drug crime before Aug. 1, 2016, might have received a higher-level charge than if the person had been arrested after that date. The debate before the Sentencing Commission is whether a judge should consider the actual charge on someone’s record, or what the charge for that offense would be today.

In a Wednesday afternoon hearing, testimony mostly favored applying the new laws to old records.

ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition, offered several people to testify, many noting the intent of legislators was to treat addiction as more of a health issue, and focus on “kingpins” rather than addicts.

“If they used the old criminal history statutes to calculate people’s scores, all they’re doing is sending people to prison who need help,” Mariah Wilberg, who spent time in prison for a first-degree drug offense, told Fox 9.

Wilberg said her first-degree prison sentence would likely be a second-degree probation sentence had she been arrested under the current laws.

However, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association does not believe new laws should apply to pre-August 2016 records. Robert Small, the executive director, said any change should be made by the legislature. Small, a former judge, also testified that defendants convicted of serious crimes could have their sentences shortened.

“Theft, aggregated robbery, murder. All those offenses would potentially get a shorter sentence if they happened to have a criminal history including a drug conviction,” Small told Fox 9. “Whereas someone else who has the same type of criminal history, but no drug conviction in their prior criminal history, they would get a longer sentence.”

The public can provide comments for the next five days. The Sentencing Commission will vote on Dec. 30.