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Minnesota’s system of criminal sentencing is run with agility and social awareness. Each year since 1980, Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission has been modifying Minnesota sentencing guidelines based on problems identified, issues raised by various groups, case law, and legislative changes. These guidelines contain the presumptive, or recommended, sentences for felony convictions. The Commission also considers prison resources and the need for the Minnesota legislature to accurately gauge the amount of funding the prison system needs. If the prison system lacks resources, the Commission will seek the modify the guidelines to reflect the lack of resources. The Commission typically meets monthly, and it consists of 11 members representing the criminal justice system, the public, and victims.

Definition of Presumptive Sentencing

Presumptive sentencing is the state’s attempt to run the criminal justice system without bias based on race or gender or the exercise of constitutional rights by the defendant. The underlying goal is to reflect social values and normative beliefs of Minnesotans as a whole. The goal of the Commission is to constantly adapt the sentencing guidelines to ensure proportional and uniform punishment of crimes throughout the state.

How a Presumptive Sentence is Determined

The guidelines attempt to measure the “punishability” of each specific crime based on two measurements — the severity of the offense (numbered 1 – 11) and the criminal history of the offender. The point on the grid where these two measurements intersect is where the presumptive (recommended) sentence can be found. The criminal history index measures the offender’s prior record on a scale of 1 – 6 and is calculated by four measures:

  1. a weighted measure of prior felony sentences;
  2. a limited measure of prior misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor sentences;
  3. a limited measure of the prior serious juvenile record; and
  4. a “custody status” measure indicating if the offender was under supervision when the current offense occurred.

Sex offenses have their own grid with eight severity levels (A – H) and six levels of criminal history.

Judges are not required to follow the presumptive sentencing guidelines with absolute strictness. The guidelines are based on an assumption that there are no atypical circumstances. Every criminal lawyer and judge knows, however, that not every crime is typical. Therefore, judges are given discretion to stray from the guidelines, as long as they state the reasons for departure.

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