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Commission Delays Vote On Controversial Proposal That Would Lessen Penalties For Some Repeat Offenders

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) -- The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday delayed a controversial vote that would've shortened sentences for offenders who commit crimes while on probation or parole, after fierce criticism from lawmakers, law enforcement and the public.

More than 3,000 people submitted testimony to the commission, most of them urging the commission to reject changes they feared would further endanger the public as a rise in crime leaves the Twin Cities metro on edge.

"There's a perception that the criminal justice system has a revolving door and it doesn't hold offenders accountable," said Commissioner Michelle Larkin, who is a Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge.

Sentencing in Minnesota is on a point system, which accounts for the crime committed and criminal history. More points yield a stronger penalty. The proposal before the commission, which is an 11-member body made up of largely governor appointees that work in the criminal justice system, looked to eliminate "custody status" points, or added penalties for those who commit offenses while on probation, parole, or other supervised or conditional release for other convictions. 

Republican lawmakers were sharply critical of the changes, vowing to pass legislation in the upcoming session at the capitol that would toughen punishment for certain crimes, like carjacking and robbery.

"The last thing we need to do right now is to have a lighter punishments for criminals," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the chair of the judiciary and public safety committee, at a Thursday morning news conference ahead of the vote.

Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission
(credit: CBS)

Paul Schnell, who is the head of the Department of Corrections and a member of the commission, asked for the postponed vote. He said data and research guided the plan to get rid of extra penalties, and he accused GOP lawmakers of inflaming tensions with rhetoric invoking fear, calling their comments "inaccurate and misguided."

"The notion that maintaining of the custody status is the difference between public safety or the lack of it is absurd," Schnell said.

But the public outcry prompts further discussion and engagement with Minnesotans before taking any further steps, he said, and the group tabled any action on the proposal on Thursday.

"It's clear that we, as members of this commission, have more work to do to help our fellow Minnesotans understand and consider the true implications of custody status," Schnell said. "We haven't done that."

The commission did not say when it would take up the vote again. Limmer and fellow Republicans, who later celebrated the delayed vote, said they want to update the law that established the commission and "change how much discretion they really should have in the role of sentences and sentencing guidelines.

The legislature reconvenes on Jan. 31.

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