Senate looks to create database of judges’ sentencing histories

Sen. Koran explained that although the state of Minnesota collects all this data from judges, accessing it is an overly burdensome task.

The Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Minnesota Department of Administration/Flickr)

Proposed legislation in the Minnesota Senate would establish a searchable public database on criminal sentences, if passed and signed into law.

The chief author of SF 3356, Sen. Mark Koran of North Branch, introduced the bill on Monday. Its co-sponsors as of Tuesday afternoon include President of the Senate David Osmek, Deputy Majority Leader Mark Johnson, and Sens. Andrew Mathews and Paul Utke.

“The [Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission] shall maintain a public website with a searchable database that provides the public with information on criminal sentences stayed or imposed by the courts,” the bill reads.

Users of the website must also have the ability to search by case number, name of defendant, date of offense, judge who stayed or imposed a sentence, the nature of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history score, and several other criteria.

In Monday’s Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meeting, Sen. Koran explained that although the state of Minnesota collects all this data from judges, accessing it is an overly burdensome task for curious members of the public. His legislation is thus an effort to increase judicial transparency.

“Every general election, Minnesotans want to learn about judges and know who is on the ballot and how has their record been over their term,” he added in a news release. “They want to know if that judge has protected the public, been tough on crime, or been lenient to repeat criminals.”

The new database would allow the public to “search by judge and then find out how often that judge gives probation instead of prison time, stays a sentence, departs from the Sentencing Guidelines in either direction, and whether the prosecutor agreed with the judge’s decision,” the release explained.

In 2019, Minnesota judges granted downward departures in 24.6% of cases, compared to the 1.4% of cases where aggravated departures were imposed, according to the Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s annual report to the Legislature. This year’s report does not yet include data on sentencing departures due to an “unusual delay” in obtaining some of the data.

“With an epidemic of crime gripping the state, it is now more important to our constituents than ever to provide them with completely transparent information so they can [see] what their judges have been doing and hold them accountable for their judicial discretion,” Koran added.

SF 3356 has been referred to the aforementioned committee for review. Its House companion, HF 3330, has also been referred to its public safety committee, though Democratic control of that chamber means the bill likely faces a tougher uphill battle than its Senate counterpart.