Minnesota panel weighs lighter sentences for some offenders

A proposal from the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission to shorten some sentences for offenders who commit new crimes while on probation has Republicans and police groups at odds with community activists and the man who runs Minnesota prisons.

The 11-member commission, which includes eight people appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, plans to make a final decision in January. Thirty people signed up to testify at a public hearing Thursday, and the commission's chair said the debate has been so intense that some members have faced personal attacks over the proposal.

Minnesota operates on a points system, so repeat offenders face longer sentences than first-time offenders. The commission's plan, which would take effect Aug. 1 if it passes, would take away a point for some offenders who commit new crimes while on probation or supervisory release.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who sits on the commission, supports the proposal. It will free up 536 prison beds and save money, he said. Under the changes, Schnell said offenders would still face criminal penalties for committing the new offense.

But the plan has met opposition from Republican lawmakers who call it "soft on crime" and criticized the appointed Sentencing Guidelines Commission members for considering it.

"This is not the time for criminal justice going wild. This is the time to protect public safety of our citizens," Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, testified.

Republicans acknowledged that the panel's decision will likely be final. The state Legislature can override any Sentencing Guidelines Commission vote, but a divided House and Senate makes an agreement doubtful.

When a reporter asked Walz about the proposal this week, he appeared to endorse the changes but deferred to the commission for a final vote.

"Trying to tell Minnesotans that this is somehow going to make them less safe is simply not true," Walz said of the opposition. "The sentencing commission is made up of a vast swath of expertise."

Community activists said Minnesota's current sentencing guidelines were unjust because many offenses committed while on probation are technical, such as failure to register.

"I’ve made my share of mistakes but I’m trying to do right for my kids and community at this point," said Latrell Snider of Minneapolis, who described the current rules as a "dark cloud" over his head.

Will Cooley of Decarcerate Minnesota, a group that supports the changes, said Minnesota's current sentencing requirements were not aligned with the state's priorities.

"While we have poured countless criminal justice resources into the health problem of addiction, we have neglected the primary function of law enforcement: solving violent crimes," he said.

Thursday's public hearing included two women who said they were recent victims of violent crime by repeat offenders. Julie Wicklund of Minneapolis said a gunman invaded her home earlier this month while her family was there.

"They were at another home three days after doing the same thing, as my belongings were found with theirs," Wicklund said. "If they’re on probation and committing crimes, we have not gotten their attention."