Ramsey County Attorney's Office Creates Sentencing Review Unit: Q&A with Michelle Monteiro, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney

What is sentencing review and why is it necessary?

The United States is the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have 22 million individuals incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails, which has increased 500% over the last 40 years. (www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts.) That increase is, in large part, the result of excessive prison sentences handed down during the  “tough-on-crime era” of the criminal legal system, which disproportionately harmed people of color. Thousands of people continue to be locked inside prisons serving sentences that would never be imposed today.

In response to this awareness, some prosecutors’ offices across the country have started up internal review units to facilitate sentencing review. That can include prosecutor-initiated sentencing adjustments of individual sentences as well as developing policies, practices, and reforms to prevent unduly harsh sentences on the front end.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office intends to help right the wrongs of our past by establishing an internal sentencing review unit to review and correct extreme, disproportionate, and unjust sentences. I was hired at the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in February of 2021 to work on sentencing and conviction review. Right now, my main focus is on sentencing review. 

What type of work will the sentencing review unit be doing?

Our unit is working on a plan to review claims that a sentence is unfairly harsh and no longer serves the interests of justice. We have assembled a Sentencing Review Advisory Board to help us decide what type of cases to review and set priorities. Our board will include people with both professional and life experiences that can help us decide how to proceed. We also hope to develop sentencing policy, for example, making sure prosecuting attorneys are aware of any mitigating factors about a defendant early enough in the proceedings that they can be considered. 

What kind of cases will you review?

Our sentencing review procedures will address the incarceration of individuals serving lengthy sentences who no longer pose a serious risk to public safety. We are seeking guidance from our Sentencing Review Advisory Board on what this will look like.

In February, we obtained data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) on all incarcerated individuals serving Ramsey County sentences. We are partnering with a non-profit group called For the People. They are helping us analyze our DOC population and identify possible individuals who no longer pose a serious risk to public safety and could be considered for review. They will also assist us with outreach with the incarcerated people we are considering for review. 

What legal mechanisms are available for prosecutor-initiated sentencing adjustments in Minnesota?

Prosecutors in Minnesota have complete discretion in in charging, plea agreements, dismissing cases, and recommending sentences. After a defendant is sentenced, however, there are currently very limited legal mechanisms available to initiate prosecutor-initiated sentence adjustments.

Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, has sponsored a bill in the MN House of Representatives that would establish a process and create a legal mechanism for prosecutor-initiated sentence adjustments. The proposed law is based on a California law, Assembly Bill 2942, which passed in 2019. Minnesota House File 901 would give prosecutors discretion to review individual cases any time after the initial sentencing. If the prosecutor believes there should be a downward sentencing adjustment, they would be able to file a motion with the sentencing judge. The ultimate decision would rest with the Court.

This bill would create a clear process for prosecutor-initiated sentencing adjustments that do not currently exist in Minnesota. It would give prosecutors statewide the tools needed to review and correct extreme, disproportionate, and unjust sentences.

What is your background?

I am a St. Paul native. I attended college at College of St. Catherine and law school at William Mitchell College of Law. I started as a law clerk in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office in 1995 and worked as an attorney there from 1998-2016. I then moved to Bismarck, ND and worked as an Assistant Federal Defender in western North Dakota for 5 years.

I have been interested in conviction and sentencing review for quite some time. When I found out the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office was looking for an attorney to work in this area, I jumped at the chance and was lucky enough to be hired for the position.  I am excited at the opportunity to assist the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in reviewing individuals serving lengthy sentences who no longer pose a serious risk to public safety.