MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Mohamed Noor will be back in court Friday morning when a judge will give him his sentence for fatally shooting Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017. He was charged with second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder.

The guidelines say his sentence should be between 11 and 15 years, two-thirds of which would be behind bars.

So, how do courts determine these felony sentences? Good Question.

Forty years ago, a convicted criminal would get a range. It could be zero to five or 10-15 years. Back then, it was up to the warden or parole board to decide how long they would stay.

“We found that there was a real inequitability in how that was being enforced,” Scott County District Judge Caroline Lennon says.

In 1980, Minnesota created one of the first sentencing commissions in the country. Over the years, that commission has determined the guidelines for sentencing, taking the maximums set by the Minnesota state legislature. The idea is to promote fairness and consistency.

“We want someone who gets sentenced in St. Paul not to get treated differently than someone who gets sentenced in Cass Lake,” said Judge Lennon, who is a member of the sentencing commission.

There are two components that go into determining the range for a sentence: the severity of the crime (11 categories) and the criminal history of the offender (a 0-6 score). All these numbers are put into a grid.

“Really, it’s just a formula. We’re just adding up numbers and we’re putting it on a grid and we’re saying, that’s where your sentence should be, typically,” Lennon said.

A judge can decide to go outside those guidelines. In most cases, though, it’s almost impossible to do after the prosecutors and defense agree to a plea deal. In 2017, 97% of felony cases were decided by a plea agreement.

But when a conviction comes from a trial, a judge has more discretion in departing from the guidelines. According to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, a departure happened about a quarter of the time in 2017. Overwhelmingly, the judge sentenced the offender to less time behind bars or probation over prison time. A judge can also decide on probation or less time behind bars.

“The judge can look at that range and say that’s too much – that sentence is an overreaction,” Lennon said. “But if they’re going outside of what the guidelines would call for, they have to justify that.”

Giving more time is difficult and requires a jury to be involved.

When asked if that judge goes into the sentencing already knowing the sentence, Judge Lennon says, “You’d probably get about 250 some answers from judges across the state.”

Heather Brown

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