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How to Determine a Presumptive Sentences in Minnesota

Taking effect for offenses factually occurring after May 1, 1980, an offender who is convicted of a felony in the state of Minnesota faces what is called a “presumptive sentence,” as determined under the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines. (Please note: for offenses occurring and the date of offense being on or before April 30, 1980, then the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines should not be used to sentence the offender in that case, as they are inapplicable by law.) In order to determine the proper and legally-appropriate presumptive sentence for a particular felony offender, one must locate the correct block on the “Sentencing Guidelines Grids.” This is done by evaluating two factors: criminal history and offense severity. Each of these factors is considered to be the most important factors under Minnesota sentencing and releasing laws. Here we look at just the “criminal history” factor as it relates to a person’s ultimate presumptive sentence under Minnesota’s sentencing scheme, called the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines. (For more information on determining a person’s “offense severity” (as dictated by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines), go to How to Determine a Presumptive Sentence in Minnesota: Offense Severity.)

Criminal History

Even considering the importance of an offender’s criminal history under the Sentencing Guidelines, overall the guidelines have reduced the emphasis historically given to an offender’s criminal history by Minnesota sentencing judges. Under past judicial practice, a person’s “criminal history” was the primary factor in dispositional decisions. Under current practices found within the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, the particular offense for which a person is convicted is the primary factor, and an individual’s criminal history is a secondary factor in such dispositional decisions. Also, in the past, there have been a number of different problems that have arisen as courts have tried to use a person’s “criminal history” in determining what sentence is appropriate and how an offender’s sentence may be increased or decreased because of such a person’s criminal history or lack thereof, respectively. Such problems include not having uniform standards regarding what should (or should not) be included in a particular offender’s criminal history, no weighting format for assigning differing weights for differing types of offenses committed by a person in their past, and no systematic process to check the accuracy of the information alleged to be the “criminal history” of a particular offender. Thus, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines provide a more uniform standard for the inclusion and weighting of criminal history information. The sentencing hearing at the trial court level provides a process to better assure the accuracy of the information in an individual case and for an individual offender. These additions and changes (and hopefully improvements) are believed by the Commission to result in an increase in fairness and equity in the consideration of a person’s criminal history by the sentencing courts statewide. That said, the Commission also acknowledges that records and agencies are fallible, stating “[n]o system of criminal history record keeping ever will be totally accurate and complete, and any sentencing system will have to rely on the best available criminal history information.”

Criminal History Index

A criminal history index is found in the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Grids. The criminal history index is represented the horizontal axis of the Grid. It is comprised of the following components:
  • prior felony record;
  • custody status at the time of the offense;
  • prior misdemeanor record;
  • prior gross misdemeanor record; and
  • prior juvenile record for young adult felons.
The classification of prior offenses as petty misdemeanors, misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, or felonies is determined on the basis of current Minnesota offense definitions and sentencing policies. This means that in order to determine an accurate criminal history score, a person must look to the classifications in place at the time an individual’s criminal history score is being established (and not the time the offense was committed or any other time). This is true except when a monetary threshold determines the offense classification. When this is the case, the monetary classification in effect at the time the prior offense was committed (not the current threshold) determines the offense classification in calculating the criminal history index. Offenses which are petty misdemeanors by statute, or which are deemed petty misdemeanors by Minn. R. Crim. P. 23.02 (the only sanction is a fine less than the misdemeanor fine level defined in statute) and 23.04, are not used to compute the criminal history index. At the time of this writing, the only possible penalty for a petty misdemeanor under Minnesota law is a fine of not more than $300.

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