Derek Chauvin’s Sentencing Changes Nothing

Derek Chauvin, ex-Minneapolis police officer, has been charged with 22.5 years for murdering George Floyd on 25 June last year. He placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine and a half minutes and was charged with second and third degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Minnesota law stipulates that he will receive only the severest of the three since they arise from the same behavior.

Minnesota has statewide sentencing guidelines that determine what are called “presumptive sentences” — essentially recommended sentences for felony offenses. Presumptive sentences offer guidelines for two outcomes, whether to send someone to prison and for how long. They arise by matching an individual’s felony conviction with their criminal history, St. Paul’s Hamline University law professor and public defender with Minnesota Public Defender’s Office Brad Colbert told Al Jazeera.

Chauvin has no criminal past, which is a contributing factor to why he will get a presumptive sentence of 12.5 years. However, due to two aggravating factors, this sentence is increased by an additional 10. This includes abuse of trust and particular cruelty, as explained by presiding judge Peter Cahill, “[P]art of the mission of the Minneapolis Police Department is to give citizens voice and respect.” Mr. Chauvin, instead of adhering to this mission, treated Mr. Floyd with disrespect and denied him the dignity all humans deserve. He certainly would have extended this to a friend or neighbor. In the Court’s view, 270 months, amounting to an additional ten years over the presumptive 150-month sentence, is an appropriate one.

While the decision marks one step towards achieving racial justice in the United States, it reminds us about the tremendous gap laying in between that goal. What does this say? Let’s admonish the fact that one of the longest prison terms ever imposed on a  U.S police officer in murdering a black person has happened? Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, explained that 11 non-federal law officers, including Chauvin, were convicted of murder for on-duty deaths since 2005. Penalties for such deaths only ranged from six years and nine months to life in prison, with 15 years as the median, said CBC News. But Chauvin has changed that story. Even the state of Minnesota’s memorandum confirmed that prosecutions of police officers have been a rarity in the U.S., and research on this subject is not widely available.

It’s a cautionary tale to expect the judiciary in advancing racial justice alone. The way it functions is rooted in principles of impartiality, a goal that may seem incompatible with progressing social change. It’s important for the data attached to Minnesota’s state memorandum to signify that for most sentences imposed on second degree murder, 67% were within the presumptive guideline. This means most convictions involved individuals with no prior criminal history and increased sentences if aggravating factors were established. In fact, legally, the most common aggravated sentence for criminals with zero criminal history was 278.2 months, which is slightly more than what Chauvin was granted.

According to the memorandum, there are legal principles and established facts it abides by, not public opinion. Determining the appropriate length of any felony sentence is not a mathematical calculation, nor something to double once aggravating factors are proven in court. “[E]ach sentence should be an application of the law to the facts of the individual case,” disregarding “sympathy, bias, passion, or public opinion,” per the memorandum. That is why advancing social change and improving racial outcomes, especially with policing in the U.S. should be left to those who have the largest and unbridled capacity: the mass public.