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Recently, the Minnesota legislature[1] proposed reforms that could affect a large number of individuals facing prosecution for crimes with outdated sentences in state court.[2] Minnesota sentencing reform proposals like these are a positive sign that indiscriminately incarcerating individuals is being seen less and less as a viable option.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission[3] voted in favor of adopting new guidelines for sentencing, including sentences for drug crimes offenders.[4] These new guidelines will very likely become effective this August.[5] The new sentencing guidelines would allow for more individuals to receive stayed sentences instead of actual incarceration. A stayed sentence is when an individual is sentenced to a specific prison term, but instead of reporting to the department of corrections, that individual is placed on probation and may serve some local jail time. A stayed sentence does not eliminate the possibility of prison, a violation of specific terms will most likely remand the individual to serve out the prison sentence. But a stayed sentence allows families to stay together, jobs to be kept, and especially in the case of drug offenders, help to be given to someone in need.

The report expects these changes to have a significant affect on the prison population in Minnesota. For example, in 2014, 76 of the 427 second-degree drug offenders would not have been sentenced to prison and 135 of the 427 offenders would have received shorter sentences. Of the 427 individuals sentenced in 2014 for second-degree drug offenses, 211 (49.4%) would receive less prison time. It is evident these sentencing changes will make a lot of positive impacts by keeping people out of prison and in a position to have real change in their lives.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is not the only body looking at the growing issue of incarceration in Minnesota. The Prison Population Task Force[6] developed in response to Minnesota’s growing prison population, one which outnumbers the beds available in the state system. Having its first meeting in September of 2015, the task force is made up of a number of professionals with insight on Minnesota’s prison system. The group has looked at projects to reduce recidivism and focus on chemical treatment for offenders. Whether or not this group will be able to have an impact remains to be seen, acquiring the funding to conduct studies on prison reform is itself a tall task.

We are moving towards a criminal justice system that has smarter sentences; sentences which actually reduce crime and empower individuals to live productive lives. However, change is slow. Everyone can play a part by contacting federal, state, and local representatives and asking for sentencing reform to become a priority.

Importantly, lengthy and burdensome sentences are still a reality. If you or someone you know has recently been charged with a crime, it is important to contact an attorney that can advocate on your behalf and protect your rights. Contact the Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC at 612-547-3199 or email ambroselegal@icloud.com for a free consultation.

Attorney Nathan Downing received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver. He was a member of the Law Review while in law school; and he recently returned home to Minnesota to continue his legal career. Drug crimes attorney St. Paul MN; St. Paul criminal defense lawyer; and St. Paul criminal defense attorney.

[1] The legislature has the power to enact laws and create the accompanying sentences should those laws be broken. The executive branch holds the power to prosecute those who do not act in accordance with the legislature’s laws. The judicial branch has the power to sentence, or punish, those found guilty within its courts. All three branches work at the federal, state, and local levels. As a result, sentencing reform must take place in all areas of government at all levels in order to achieve comprehensive progression towards a better criminal justice system.

[2] We previously blogged here about sentencing reform at the federal and local level – ranging from United States Supreme Court opinions to United States Congressional proposals to local level drug courts.

[3] “The Commission has stated that the purpose of the Sentencing Guidelines is to establish rational and consistent sentencing standards that reduce sentencing disparity and ensure that the sanctions imposed for felony convictions are proportional to the severity of the conviction offense and the offender’s criminal history.” Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Report to the Legislature at 1 (Jan. 15, 2016).

[4] See the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission Report to the Legislature here.

[5] Ultimately the proposals are still subject to legislative review. See The Report to the Legislature, at 3.

[6] Click here to see the various meeting notes from the Prison Population Task Force.

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