Minnesota Law

Spring 2021
Faculty Focus

In Pursuit of Justice

Retiring Professor Richard Frase Closes the Book on a Storied Career in Criminal Law

Professor Richard Frase

During his 50-year legal career, Richard Frase earned a place as one of the country’s foremost experts on sentencing guidelines and criminal justice. Frase brings a social science lens to his work, blending legal theory and practice to make pioneering findings about criminal procedure, sentencing guidelines, racial disparities, punishment and proportionality, and more. 

Frase, the Benjamin N. Berger Professor of Criminal Law, is a nationally leading voice on sentencing, says Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law. “Professor Frase has served as co-director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, as well as co-director of the Institute’s Sentencing Guidelines Resource Center. His pathbreaking scholarship, excellence in teaching, and commitment to service have had real-world impact in improving the justice system.”

Since joining Minnesota Law in 1977, Frase has made significant contributions to the understanding of sentencing guidelines and systems. Notably, he led the development of the novel sentencing center, a centralized hub of federal and state sentencing guidelines, statutes, and other information detailing how sentencing commissions and guidelines work. 

Through the center, researchers and policymakers can compare policies and practices across jurisdictions and determine how jurisdictions have mitigated concerns such as racial disparities. Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the Robina Institute, notes that Frase’s work has been enormously influential and helped change sentencing policy in several states. 

“He doesn’t just sit in his office and think about things—Richard gets out there and helps agencies that are struggling with these issues. In that way, he puts his work into practice,” Mitchell says. “When he retires, we’re losing an immense resource on sentencing guidelines work and what policies can and should be across the nation.”

‘First-Rank’ Scholarship

Julian Roberts, a University of Oxford professor of criminal justice who co-wrote two books with Frase, calls him “a meticulous legal scholar whose scholarship is first-rank. If Frase says something about sentencing guidelines in the U.S., you can go to the bank with it.” Frase also is generous with his time with students, young scholars, and peers, mentoring them and sharing his well-rounded knowledge in both theory and practice, Roberts adds. 

A prolific researcher and writer, Frase has penned 10 books, including the recent Paying for the Past, whose subject is prior record sentence enhancements. He’s written more than 100 articles, including a much-cited piece about racial disparities in Minnesota’s prison and jail populations. Frase’s first book took a holistic look at the nation’s criminal justice system with an eye toward reform. He honed this big-picture perspective as a postgraduate fellow at the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice at the University of Chicago Law School, his alma mater. 

Minnesota Law hired Frase to teach criminal law and procedure and run the criminal prosecution clinic. He spent the first quarter prosecuting misdemeanors for the city of Minneapolis to gain courtroom experience. Though Frase was initially skeptical of his clinical responsibilities, he says he is grateful for the opportunity to stay grounded in the practice of law. By spending 40 years variously leading the misdemeanor, federal prosecution, and federal defense clinics, Frase gained a window into numerous issues that informed his research. 

In addition, Frase got engaged in comparative law while participating four times in Minnesota Law’s exchange program in Lyon, France, and once in Kiel, Germany. He even mastered enough French to teach in that language. These experiences led to his books on the French code of criminal procedure and a comparative study of sentencing and sanctions in Western countries. 

As a longtime professor who has taught several thousand students, Frase enjoys seeing their success as esteemed lawyers, prosecutors, and judges. On top of teaching students his subject matter, Frase emphasized advocating strongly for clients while gaining an understanding of opponents’ positions. “I want them to think like a lawyer—but also learn to think like a law professor, because you’ll always be teaching yourself new law or new areas of law,” he says. “It’s an intellectual challenge and a pleasure.”

It’s a philosophy Frase has taken to heart during his long career, one that kept him engaged, thriving, and contributing immensely to Minnesota Law and the wider criminal justice world for decades.

Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.