DFL lawmakers are applauding a new policy that would cap probation sentences for nonviolent felony offenders in Minnesota at five years.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission advanced the proposal in 6-5 vote Wednesday and plans to put the measure up for a final vote in January after holding a public hearing next month. The Grand Forks Herald notes Minnesota’s prison sentencing guidelines don’t extend to probation sentencing, which yields “drastically different probation sentences.”
For instance, Hennepin County has an average probation sentence of three years while Minnesota’s Seventh Judicial District has an average sentence of seven years.
Democratic lawmakers, who unsuccessfully attempted to pass a probation caps bill last session, praised Wednesday’s vote in a number of statements released throughout the week.
“For far too long in our state, both the number of individuals sentenced to probation and the length of the terms have exceeded what’s needed to promote deterrence or reduce recidivism,” the Minnesota Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus said in a joint statement. “The cost of Minnesota’s failure to consistently apply fair and useful probation terms has been particularly harmful to communities of color and to Indigenous communities. These communities already suffer racial disparities in income, wealth and access to opportunities.”
The statement claims long probation terms “compound these disparities” by barring residents from many professions, preventing them from living in certain residences, and making them ineligible to vote.
“As state legislators, we know Minnesotans favor probation system reforms,” the statement continues, praising “the wisdom of having an autonomous, independent commission that is indifferent to political influence and willing to act boldly to both advance public safety and rein in a criminal justice system that has some of the highest racial disparities in the nation.”
Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Minneapolis), the sponsor of last session’s bill, said Minnesota’s “current probation system is failing basic tests of fairness.”
“Probation terms for the same crime vary widely across the state, and Minnesotans are still receiving 20, 30, and even 40 year probation terms,” Long continued. “These types of sentences are not rehabilitative. It’s time we help returning citizens rejoin their communities, rather than creating more obstacles.”
Rep. Jim Nash (R-Waconia), however, accused Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell of violating the state’s open-meeting law by forcing a vote on a proposal that was only listed as a discussion item, The Star Tribune reported.
Indeed, the public agenda for the November 6 meeting described the measure as “Probation—Next Steps (Discussion Item).”
The Sentencing Guidelines Commission said in response that the vote was not final and “there’s a lot of time for public input.”
Rep. Jack Considine (DFL-Mankato), chair of the House Corrections Division, said he supports the action taken by the commission.
“This issue is nothing new — it’s been under intense public scrutiny for years. Minnesotans and public safety experts are telling us that our current system isn’t working well for a lot of people, particularly those in Greater Minnesota where we’re finding many of the outliers,” he said in a statement. “Freeing up public resources for intensive supervision for people who need it would be a step in the right direction, so I commend Commissioner Schnell and the commission for moving this urgent conversation forward.”
Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), who chairs the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division, seconded Considine’s remarks.
“I applaud Commissioner Schnell and the Sentencing Guidelines Commission for taking action to fix this broken system after the Minnesota Senate blocked a bipartisan bill from advancing in the legislative process earlier this year,” he said. “Minnesota has wide racial and geographic disparities and is ranked fifth among all states in percentage of residents who are on probation, and I’m proud to be part of a broad coalition of people who are working to address this unacceptable reality.”
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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo “Minnesota Capitol” by Gabriel Vanslette. CC BY 3.0.