The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission – what you need to know about this influential body

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC) is an appointed governmental body that has significant influence over the direction and effectiveness of our state’s criminal justice systems, through the establishment of sentencing guidelines. 

By statute the MSGC’s primary consideration “shall be public safety” as it works to establish and modify sentencing guidelines.

The product of the MSGC’s work is intended to “embody the goals of the criminal justice system as determined by the citizens of the state through their elected representatives.”

Arguably, the MSGC’s work in the past 3-4 years has not been the embodiment of criminal justice system goals as determined by Minnesotans, nor have many of its proposals and modifications been reflective of public safety.  In recent years the MSGC has frequently taken action on or debated modifications of the sentencing guidelines that weaken rather than strengthen penalties for those convicted of crimes in Minnesota.  This philosophy, in the face of unprecedented spikes in crime, has been the wrong approach at the wrong time.

This article summarizes the MSGC make up and role, and addresses many of the issues the commission has recently addressed or intends to address.  While providing information to advance public awareness about the MSGC, the article also encourages more citizen involvement in the important and influential work carried out by the MSGC.

History, purpose, and structure

In 1978 Minnesota became the first state in the nation with a sentencing guidelines authority when it created the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC).  The commission is governed by statute 244.09 to promulgate sentencing guidelines for district court to ensure “uniformity, proportionality, rationality, and predictability in sentencing.”   Find statute 244.09 here.

The MSGC consists of 11 appointees, 8 of whom are appointed by the governor to serve 4-year terms coterminous with the governor.  The other 3 commissioners are appointed by the chief justice of the supreme court.

Each year as the MSGC makes amendments and modifications to the guidelines, the Minnesota Legislature is responsible for reviewing the changes.  Any changes proposed by the MSGC automatically take effect on August 1st unless the legislature takes action to reject a particular change.

The sentencing guidelines are “advisory” to the district court, though the court is mandated to follow the procedures of the guidelines when sentencing convicted criminal defendants.  Rules govern how courts may depart from the sentencing guidelines when either aggravating or mitigating circumstances warrant a departure.  

Learn more about the MSGC at its website found here.

Issues addressed or under consideration by the current MSGC

The majority of the current MSGC has been in place since 2018 under the leadership of the chair, Kelly  Mitchell, who is also the Executive Director of the Robina Institute at the University of Minnesota.   

The current commission has taken a decidedly liberal stance on many criminal justice and sentencing related issues.  This stance is consistent with the belief that our nation and state over-incarcerate, and that this over incarceration has exacerbated racial disparities in our criminal justice system. 

This stance is not supported by the fact that Minnesota has the 3rd lowest incarceration rate in the nation, or that our state inmate demographics mirror our offender demographics – making the argument that it’s appropriate to adjust post-conviction responses to address pre-conviction societal issues an illogical one.

In 2019 the MSGC took up the issue of capping the amount of time a convicted person could be on probation to no more than 5 years – despite 82% of probation terms already being less than 5 yrs.  This move was consistent with the criminal justice reform movement that has been gaining momentum nationally.  The MSGC voted to approve the change and the DFL led Minnesota House allowed the changes to take affect August 1, 2020 via inaction on the changes.

Also in 2019, the MSGC took action to amend the Custody Status Point (CSP) calculation that is used by judges to determine a convicted person’s criminal history score for sentencing purposes.  The MSGC changed the point value on many lessor offenses reducing them to a ½ point instead of a full point.  However, the MSGC failed to amend the Sentencing Guideline Grid or the scoring form used by judges to account for the new ½ point.  Rather than address this relatively simple technical error, the MSGC began debating the elimination of the CSP entirely.  During this period of debate, courts were been left with no way to apply the ½ points, requiring the Minnesota Court of Appeals to step in with interim guidance, which has effectively eliminated the ½ point until the MSGC fixes its error.

In 2021 Center of the American Experiment made the CSP issue the subject of a public awareness campaign.  Over 3,400 citizens contacted the MSGC in opposition to the proposed elimination of the CSP.  As a result, a December 2021 vote was tabled, but the issue remains actively debated and is an urgent item on the upcoming November 3rd MSGC meeting agenda.

In 2022, with the backdrop of a 4-year crime wave, and a troubling increase in downward departures in sentencing by judges (43.2% in 2020) the MSGC chair has proposed seeking legislative funding for an estimated 4 year “comprehensive review” of the state’s existing sentencing guidelines.  Such a time-consuming review and accompanying funding is arguably out of touch with the need for the MSGC to be timelier in its response to our state’s deteriorating public safety.  A comprehensive review does not appear warranted and would serve to delay more timely actions.

If the MSGC is serious about improving public safety it would act swiftly on measures to blunt the unacceptable levels of crime by strengthening incarceration efforts, not weaken them.  Such efforts are clearly the will of most Minnesotans in 2022. 

Commission member Michelle Larkin, Judge, Minnesota Court of Appeals, spoke to this point in a letter written in opposition to the chair’s proposal, stating in part:

“What Minnesota needs now is for the commission to ensure public safety by promptly acknowledging and addressing the increase in violent crime and recidivism. Query: Are there things the commission could do now to hold repeat, violent offenders accountable? That discussion should be the commission’s top priority. Investing the limited resources of the commission for the next two, three, four, or even more years to a comprehensive review of the guidelines does nothing to improve public safety during the interim.

In sum, the proposal for a comprehensive review of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines is ill advised at this time. It will do nothing to address a widely perceived need to increase—instead of decrease—sentencing consequences in an effort to address violent crime. Minnesota should not have to wait years for its sentencing guidelines commission to conduct “an honest, unsparing revisiting of consequences for criminals.”

How to make your concerns known

As noted, the MSGC is made up of appointees, 8 of the 11 coming from the governor.  The make up of the MSGC will likely remain unchanged if Governor Walz is re-elected, but would be subject to overhaul if Scott Jensen succeeds Walz.

The work of the MSGC is open to the public through its website, and by attendance in person or online at its monthly meetings, where public comments are encouraged. 

Find the link to the MSGC calendar, agendas, meeting minutes, reports, and on-line attendance here.  

The next meeting of the MSGC is Thursday November 3rd at 1 pm.   Minn. Dept. of Corrections – Afton Room (Room 135) – ETC Building (West Entrance).  1450 Energy Park Drive, St. Paul, MN 55108 – Remote Access Optional*