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Penalties for repeat offenders debated

The state commission is debating what changes, if any, should be made to how custody status affects criminal history scores.

ST PAUL, Minn. — A state board is revisiting the issue of how much to penalize repeat offenders for committing a new crime while still on probation.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has been wrestling with the issue for more than a year, after a court found that the rules aren't being evenly applied by judges across the state.

Currently that "custody status" is worth a half point when it's time to calculate a convict's criminal history, which is done using a grid formulated by the commission. But it has led to confusion and inconsistencies in rounding up or down because the grid contains only whole numbers.

"So, we had a situation where the guidelines say count it and the Minnesota Court of Appeals has said don’t count it. We’re trying to resolve that issue," Kelly Lyn Mitchell, the commission chair, told KARE.

"The way it was, a person being on custody status was actually getting more points in criminal history than they got for prior offenses they had committed."

RELATED: Sentencing panel delays vote on guideline change

At one point the panel considered simply removing the custody status half point altogether, noting that it adds only 3.3 months to an offender's sentence. But commissioners tabled the proposal in January after a public backlash. 

Conservative groups organized a highly successful letter-writing campaign to overwhelm the commission with opposition. Three statewide law enforcement organizations — the Minn. Chiefs of Police, the Minn. Sheriff's, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officer Association — also opposed the idea.

Thursday at the State Capitol, House Republicans said they were appalled the sentencing commission is even discussing any changes again after last January's blowback.

"The vast majority of Minnesotans don’t even know that this commission exists!" Rep. Anne Neu-Brindley, a North Branch Republican who serves as deputy minority leader in the House, told reporters.

"And Minnesotans are not asking us to be soft on crime right now. Minnesotans are asking for us to hold criminals accountable."

Rep. Neu-Brindley and fellow Republican Rep. Paul Novotny, a retired Sherburne County Sheriff's Office deputy from Elk River, implied that Gov. Tim Walz had the power to make the commission drop the issue because he appointed eight of the 11 members.

"It’s clear that, aside from a very small group of vocal extremists, no one is asking for this," Rep. Novotny remarked.

"Public polling continues to show Minnesotans are concerned about the rise of crime rates and that we are weak on penalties for criminals."

The criminal history scorecard already reflects prior convictions and the severity of those crimes, but the half point for custody status has the same weight regardless of what the repeat offense was.

"Nobody’s going in with the idea of trying to lower sentences," Mitchell explained.

"What we’re trying to do is come up with a policy that’s fair and uniform across the board."

Supreme Court Justice Gordon Moore, who serves on the commission, told his colleagues the ideal system would differentiate between those who committed a violent crime while on probation versus those who were convicted of something relatively mild.

If the commissioners come up with a draft version of the change this fall there will be a public hearing in December. The earliest the commission could make any changes to the custody status rule would be January. At that point the Minnesota Legislature would have one year to undo the change before it goes into effect, if so desired.

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission was created by the state legislature 40 years ago. The panel holds public meetings with published agendas and simulcasts them through an online portal.

By law the governor appoints eight members to four-year terms that run concurrently with the governor's term. Those eight must include a public defender, a county attorney, the state corrections commissioner or a designee, a police officer, a probation or parole officer, and three members of the general public. At least one of the public members must be victim of a felony crime.

The Minn. Supreme Court Chief Justice appoints three members -- one district court judge, one appeals court judge, and one associate supreme court justice.

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