Judicial Performance – a look at sentencing departures in Minnesota
Minnesotans frequently ask Center of the American Experiment how they can find information to help evaluate the performance of judges in their district. Unfortunately information on judicial performance is traditionally reported in aggregate data, with no identifying information to help the public evaluate how individual judges perform.
To assist with this evaluation, Center of the American Experiment made a public data request to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC) for a statewide report on judicial departures from the sentencing guidelines. These reports cover 2018-2020. (2021 and 2022 data is not yet available).
The reports identify each judge by judicial district and list the number of departures from the sentencing guidelines each judge has made when sentencing defendants in criminal cases. The reports also lists the number of cases each judge had in which a commitment to prison was recommended — “presumptive commitment.”
Definitions of terminology used in the reports can be found here.
- Dispositional departures refer to the disposition of sentence — either sentenced to prison or stayed sentence.
- Durational departures refer to a departure on the recommended length of sentence.
- “Aggravated” departure is an upward departure in either disposition or duration of sentence.
- “Mitigated” departure is a downward departure in either disposition or duration of the sentence
As noted by the MSGC:
- “A word of caution about departure rates by judge: departure rates can be affected by how many cases a judge sentences, the type of cases sentenced, and the criminal history score of the cases sentenced….For example, a judge may have more cases with offense types more likely to receive a departure.”
Find your judicial district here.
Minnesota district court judges are either appointed by the Governor or elected. Each judge must stand for re-election in the first general election that is at least 1 year after his/her swearing-in date. Judicial terms are 6 years.
Minnesota currently has 295 district court judges. According to MinnPost, there are 94 district court judges up for election in 2022, but only one seat is contested (in the 1st district), meaning 93 of the 94 judges are running unopposed. Read the MinnPost story and links to the Secretary of State site here.
Find out more about the judicial selection and election process in Minnesota here.
This information is being shared to assist the public in becoming more informed about the performance of individual judges in their districts so that more informed election decisions can be made. The information is also important moving forward, as it may encourage more lawyers to contest sitting judges in future election cycles, giving the public more choice in the matter versus the lack of choice that currently exists in 2022.
Per the MSGC, Minnesota district court judges have set three consecutive records (2018, 2019, 2020) for downward dispositional departures. 2020’s rate of mitigated (downward) dispositional departure was 43.2% — an all-time high rate of departure from presumptive prison sentences. Judges in district 6 (northeastern MN) led the state in downward departures with 51.8% of presumptive prison commitments being stayed.
As for durational departures, in 2020 judges in districts 2 and 4 (Ramsey Co. and Hennepin Co.) led the state in downward departures from the recommended length of prison sentences at 42% and 42.7% respectively. The remaining eight districts averaged downward durational departure in just 10.6% of cases.
Sharing this data is an important step in ensuring the public has meaningful data with which to hold judicial officers accountable. There is an extensive amount of data in the departure reports. The reports can be found by year: