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Panel: Sentencing system safe from major overhaul

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission declared the state's system of imposing prison terms generally sound and urged against dramatic revisions in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

However, in a report delivered Friday to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the commission also braced the state judiciary for a probable uptick in requests for jury trials by defendants hoping to avoid tougher sentences and new prison-term challenges by convicts who haven't exhausted appeals. However, that increase should be slight, the report said.

"The commission recommends that the state move cautiously and thoughtfully as it explores potential changes to the current sentencing system," authors of the 16-page report concluded. "It may be counterproductive to begin developing solutions before the nature of the problem is fully understood."

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Promising more detailed recommendations next month, the commission of judges, lawyers, citizens and law enforcement officials put forward a series of short-term steps Minnesota could take to bring sentencing in line with the high court's Blakely v. Washington decision. The ruling said defendants are entitled to have a jury -- not a judge -- review aggravating factors that might warrant enhanced prison terms.

The public panel suggested Minnesota court rules be modified to allow defendants to waive their right to jury participation in sentencing as part of plea deals. In cases where juries deliver a guilty verdict, the court should ask the jury to consider whether there were any aggravating factors that justify a stiffer sentence than guidelines offer.

Minnesota has a grid containing presumptive sentences for crimes. Judges that hand down longer sentences are required to show an aggravating factor led to it.

Pawlenty, who ordered the review in July, said the conclusion that the guidelines structure is constitutional is "good news." While he didn't explicitly endorse the recommendations, he said in a news release they "will help judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys throughout the state in upcoming trials."

Paul Scoggin, head of the violent crimes division for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, said he agrees with the commission's comment that officials should take a cautious approach in changing sentencing guidelines, saying the U.S. Supreme Court has two cases that could provide further guidance to states.

Since the Blakely decision six weeks ago, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has ordered re-sentencing in the cases of two sex predators who were each serving 40-year terms. Some 400 more predatory offenders in similar predicaments have been hit with longer terms since 1991.

The impact doesn't end there. The cash-strapped state public defender's office has reassigned one appellate attorney to exclusively handle similar appeals, according to Chief Public Defender John Stuart. County attorneys are being forced to look again at dozens of cases they thought they had closed the books on.

The number of inmates who could be line for new sentences is difficult to pin down. The commission report said approximately 1,000 cases per year involve longer-than-guideline sentences.

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