Lawmakers slam Walz appointees for renewing debate on criminal sentences

"Do not try to sneak this through with unelected, unaccountable board members, especially when Minnesotans have been very clear in their opposition to this proposal," one lawmaker said.

Reps. Paul Novotny and Anne Neu-Brindley speak at a Thursday press conference. (Minnesota House GOP/Facebook)

Despite public outrage and objections from lawmakers, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is once again considering a proposal that could lead to reduced sentences for repeat offenders.

The MSGC sets the standards judges use to determine criminal sentences. In simple terms, Minnesota’s sentencing grid consists of a point system which considers a person’s criminal history along with their conviction. The more points, the longer the sentence. 

If a person commits a crime while on probation, parole, or in jail, they, in theory, receive an additional half-point and thus a longer sentence. This is known as the “custody status point,” and it’s what the MSGC may do away with.

The MSGC tabled its discussion of the custody status point earlier this year after public outcry.

“What don’t you understand about the overwhelming reaction Minnesotans had to this? Why are you plowing ahead with this proposal?” Rep. Anne Neu-Brindley, R-North Branch, asked during a Thursday press conference.

She said about 95% of the thousands of public comments received by the commission were from Minnesotans opposed to the idea.

Seven of the 11 members on the commission are appointed by the governor, and the Minnesota House GOP thinks they need to listen to the public outrage.

“We’re not talking about being lenient on first-time offenders; we’re talking about folks who have been convicted of crimes and then commit another,” Neu-Brindley explained during the press conference.

The commission decided to restart discussions on the controversial topic with a stakeholder roundtable last Thursday.

“The suggested solution of potentially eliminating the custody status point seems absurd,” Dave Zimmer, a public safety policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, said during the roundtable.

“I see the custody status point, the purpose of it, as fulfilling accountability in the system and ensuring integrity of our court system. We’re talking about people that have very recently been convicted of a crime and were told very clearly by a judge what the rules of supervision were,” he added.

Opponents of the custody status point believe it harms “low-level” offenders who may be struggling with an addiction.

Neu-Brindley suggested instead of setting sentencing guidelines via committee, the Walz administration should propose a bill and bring it before the Legislature.

“Do not try to sneak this through with unelected, unaccountable board members, especially when Minnesotans have been very clear in their opposition to this proposal,” she said.

Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, said Minnesota’s law enforcement and county attorney associations oppose the move.

“2021 was one of the most violent crime years in Minnesota. Last year, Minneapolis and St. Paul set records for murders and saw double and sometimes triple-digit increases in carjacking and other violent crimes,” Novotny said.

“They don’t see how people who get chance after chance after chance still get stayed sentences with multiple felonies on the record and why this commission thinks we apparently need to reduce criminal sentencing even more,” he said.

The commission held another meeting this week to continue its discussions.