The purpose of Minnesota’s Sentencing Guidelines, the state’s law says, is “to establish rational and consistent sentencing standards that promote public safety, 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.”
Where does Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of killing George Floyd, fit in here? Chauvin is scheduled to be sentenced Friday, June 25, in the case that sparked widespread protests nationwide against police brutality and riveted the nation in a televised jury trial that ended in conviction on three felony charges. The most serious was second-degree unintentional murder because he killed Floyd “with intent…but without premeditation.”
For determining the punishment, the other two charges—third-degree murder and second degree manslaughter—will be subsumed under the top charge and the sentences will be served concurrently. What is a just and fair punishment for these crimes?
Proportionality in Minnesota Guidelines
Proportionality is key, says the Minnesota law. Offenders convicted of the same crimes must receive the same sentences. And the punishment must fit the crime, not the criminal, except insofar as prior criminal convictions may push the punishment higher. (Chauvin has a clean criminal record. Pending federal charges will not be considered.) The personal attributes of the criminal do not matter, only the “severity of the criminal offense” that was committed.
Minnesota’s guidelines, when enacted in 1980, were at the time the cutting edge of “determinate sentencing,” an approach to criminal punishment aiming to standardize sentences to reduce wide disparities. Previously, and as still practiced in many states, a judge had extremely wide leeway in choosing the punishment, whether it be probation and restitution to the victim or a long prison term.
This created great differences in punishing offenders convicted of the same crime under state penal law. Arguing that the disparities clearly reflected racial and economic biases because minorities and poor people mostly received the highest end of the sentencing options, reformers demanded that criminal punishments be based almost exclusively on the severity of the crime and the offender’s criminal history, and judges are generally obliged to rely only on these factors in setting sentences.
As for proportionality to the severity of the crime, the sentencing law aimed to restrain judges’ impulses to punish with harsh prison terms capitulating to the victim’s or the public’s demands for revenge. Such sentences would create mass incarceration with little benefit to public safety.
So what will happen to a convicted offender like Derek Chauvin when he is sentenced under this system? The sentencing guidelines for his crimes presume a prison term of 15 years. This is the presumptive punishment proportionate to the crime of non-premeditated murder.
In other words, Chauvin will be punished because, during the struggle with Floyd, he decided to subdue the agitated man and let him die. He will not be punished because he is a racist, or because he is a symbol of the structural injustice so evident in too many police practices today. He will be sentenced like other people who commit second-degree murder are, unless the judge finds some special “aggravating” or “mitigating” reasons to deviate from the expected 15-year prison sentence.
Aggravating or Mitigating Factors
In a recent ruling, Judge Peter Cahill stated that four such aggravating reasons were proven beyond a reasonable doubt at the trial: Chauvin abused his position of trust and authority, he acted with particular cruelty, he acted in concert with three other people, and he committed the crime in the presence of children (four bystanders who observed the struggle.) These factors could raise the severity of the crime beyond ordinary proportionality and call for heavier punishment. Cahill set the stage to lengthen Chauvin’s prison term to as high as 30 years in prison. But he doesn’t have to.
Prosecutors, of course, have argued in favor of applying these four factors, concluding in their brief to the court that this “would properly account for the profound impact of the defendant’s conduct on the victim, the victim’s family, and the community . . . and the shocked conscience of the nation.” Chauvin’s defense attorneys countered in their own brief: “Behind the politics, Mr. Chauvin is still a human being.”
Cahill will decide whether to abide by the calibrated punishments prescribed in Minnesota’s sentencing law or to determine that Chauvin’s actions were significantly worse than those of other second-degree murderers.
If all the other cases were analyzed deeply for circumstances that were especially bad, they could probably yield such findings as well, because by definition the killing of another human being is a horrific act and public revulsion and outrage ensue. But that is precisely the reason these sentencing guidelines were put into law—to dampen the drive for revenge and require proportionality between the offense and the punishment as well as between offenders convicted of the same crimes.
How the Judge Will Decide
If Cahill follows the guidelines, he will sentence Chauvin to 15 years in prison, with possibility of parole after serving 10 years. He could give Chauvin credit for the year he has already spent in jail awaiting trial, but considering that Chauvin did not plead guilty when the evidence was so clear, perhaps he will not.
Ironically, those who advocate for the highest punishment possible in Chauvin’s case are faced with the fact that the Minnesota law was designed to prevent harsh sentencing of people who have committed serious crimes but are vulnerable to extra punishment because of public outcry against marginalized groups. In the latter instance, the groups are poor people and minorities. In Chauvin’s case, the group is the police.
If Cahill’s job performance in the criminal trial is any indication, he will push back against the extremes and sentence Chauvin to 15 years with no credit for time served.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Candace McCoy is a professor of criminal justice at the Graduate Center and John Jay College, City University of New York. She has also served as director of policy analysis for the Inspector General of the New York City Police Department. She is the author of “Politics and Plea Bargaining.”