Minnesota defines a felony as any crime that may be punished by more than one year's imprisonment. For offenses with sentences of a year or less, Minnesota law carries three misdemeanor designations: gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor, and petty misdemeanor.
Felony sentencing in Minnesota involves several factors: the statutory maximum sentence, the sentencing grid, the offender's criminal history, and the circumstances of the crime. Read on to learn how judges determine and impose felony sentences in Minnesota.
Unlike many states, Minnesota doesn't divide felony crimes into classifications (such as class A or level 1). Rather, Minnesota statutes specify the maximum penalty (imprisonment and fine) allowed for each individual felony. If a statute defines the offense as a felony but doesn't specify a sentence, the maximum penalty defaults to five years' imprisonment.
Here are some examples of felony penalties in statute:
Generally speaking, a person serves a felony sentence in state prison, whereas local jails house persons convicted of misdemeanors (with certain exceptions). (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.02, .03, .185, .205, .342, .595 (2020).)
Based on the maximum penalty set by lawmakers, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission gives each felony offense a severity level ranking and places the offense on what's called the sentencing grid. The grid provides a recommended sentence length and disposition (probation or prison) that the judge must follow or give reasons for choosing not to.
Using the offense severity level (1 to 11) and the offender's criminal history record (0 to 6+), the sentencing grid specifies a recommended sentencing range. In most cases, a judge must impose a sentence within the range found on the grid. If the case involves aggravating factors, the judge can go above the range but never beyond the maximum allowed in statute. When mitigating circumstances exist, the judge may impose a less severe sentence. (Minn. Stat. §§ 244.09, .10 (2020).)
As an example, first-degree assault carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in statute. The guidelines place the offense at a severity level 9. Based on the grid, a judge sentencing a first-time offender (no criminal history) could impose a seven-year sentence, whereas the offender with five or six prior felonies might be looking at 12 to 15 years in prison. (Check out the sentencing grid here.) The longer a person's rap sheet is, the longer the possible sentence. If the prosecutor proves aggravating circumstances occurred (say assaulting a disabled person), the judge could depart from the guidelines and go up to the maximum 20-year sentence. (Minn. Stat. § 609.221 (2020).)
Minnesota uses three different felony sentencing grids. Separate grids exist for drug and sexual assault offenses. All other felonies fall to the standard grid. (Misdemeanors are not included on the grid.)
The grid also indicates whether the judge should "execute or stay" the sentence. Executing a sentence means to carry out its terms—that is, send the offender to prison. Staying (or suspending) a sentence refers to putting prison time on hold and allowing the offender to go on probation.
Probation doesn't necessarily mean that the offender completely avoids time behind bars. As a condition of probation, the judge can order an offender to serve time in jail. Other probation conditions might include abstaining from alcohol or controlled substances, completing community service, remaining on home arrest, and staying away from victims. While on probation, the prison sentence remains on the table. The judge can revoke probation and send the offender to prison for violating probation. (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.10, .135 (2020).)
Going back to the first-degree assault example, the grid doesn't provide an option for the judge to stay the sentence. This offender would end up in prison. But if the charges were second-degree assault, an offender with one or two prior convictions could end up on probation that includes a jail term. For a lengthy criminal past, an offender convicted of second-degree assault would get an executed prison sentence.
With the exception of life sentences, Minnesota uses a system of determinate sentencing, meaning the judge hands down a set sentence (say 15 years) based on the recommendations from the guidelines. (Indeterminate sentencing, on the other hand, involves a sentencing range—for example, sentenced to ten to 20 years in prison. With an indeterminate sentence, a parole board generally decides when to release the person after the minimum term is served.)
Under Minnesota's determinate sentencing system, an offender's sentence has two parts: the imprisonment term (two-thirds) and the possible supervised release term (one-third). So, if a judge hands down a 15-year sentence, the offender will spend a minimum of ten years behind bars (the two-thirds) and, barring bad behavior in prison, could spend up to five years on supervised release in the community (the one-third). An offender who ends up with multiple disciplinary actions or commits a crime in prison would lose most, if not all, of the possible supervised release and spend the entire 15 years behind bars. Offenders who qualify for supervised release must obey release conditions while in the community (similar to probation) and can be sent back to prison for violations. (Minn. Stat. § 244.05 (2020).)
Minnesota law provides enhanced penalties and mandatory minimum penalties for offenders convicted of multiple violent crimes, sex offenses, and crimes involving a weapon, among others. For instance, a judge must impose a minimum three-year sentence, without the option of probation or supervised release, for a defendant convicted of armed burglary. And a third violent felony results in a mandatory prison sentence that cannot be stayed.
Other enhanced penalties apply to crimes committed for the benefit of a gang and felony assault based on bias. These enhancements increase the statutory maximum sentence for the underlying crime. Also, in some instances, repeat misdemeanor offenses can add up to a felony sentence, such as a third assault in ten years against the same victim. (Minn. Stat. §§ 609.1095, .224, .229, .2233 (2020).)
Minnesota law (like most states) provides a time limit for filing a criminal case—called the statute of limitations. These limits apply to both felonies and misdemeanors. A few crimes, like murder and kidnapping, can be charged at any time after the crime was committed. But the prosecutor must file most felony charges within three to nine years of the crime being committed or reported. You can learn more in our article on Criminal Statutes of Limitations. (Minn. Stat. § 628.26 (2020).)
A felony conviction becomes part of your permanent criminal record. If you are convicted later of another felony, the court can consider your prior conviction and impose a harsher sentence in the new case. Being a convicted felon can hurt you when you are looking for a job and applying to rent a house or apartment. Convicted felons lose the right to vote, carry firearms, and obtain certain professional licenses.
An experienced criminal defense attorney can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal of the charges against you, explore plea options, or represent you at trial. A local attorney will be familiar with the judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice players in the courtroom.