Since getting clean, Jennifer Schroeder went on to manage the sober living house that nurtured her after a year in jail. She became the first in her family to graduate from college and, as an addiction counselor, now helps others struggling with the same demons she had to overcome.
Yet Schroeder’s own past will loom large into her 70s. The 36-year-old St. Paul resident is on probation until 2053 after being caught with 21 grams of meth during a traffic stop one summer in Wright County.
“It’s hard to transform yourself into a new person when you are still labeled as your old self,” Schroeder said.
The same crime would net a fraction of that sentence in Minneapolis or Duluth, a chasm that underscores the disparate nature of punishment in a state with one of the nation’s highest rates of probation but with no clear guidelines for judges to rely on.
With the backing from top officials at the Department of Corrections, state lawmakers from both parties are now pushing new measures to cap probation sentences in Minnesota at five years. They are also calling on the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission to start issuing recommendations for probation like it has for prison sentencing for nearly 30 years.
“We are failing the basic test that those convicted of the same crime should receive similar punishment,” said Rep. Jamie Long, D-Minneapolis, who is sponsoring both bills.
Support for changing the state’s probation laws mirrors the national conversation surrounding criminal justice reform, like the recent First Step Act that focused on federal prison sentencing and earned broad bipartisan support. Those testifying at the State Capitol this week included local representatives from both the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Americans for Prosperity.
“Your ZIP code shouldn’t matter in this kind of sentencing,” said Jason Flohrs, state director for the Minnesota chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
One of the loudest voices calling for rethinking probation in Minnesota has been new DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell, whose appointment last month also ensured him a seat on the Sentencing Guidelines Commission.
Schnell said capping probation and ordering new guidelines would mesh with his own goal of tailoring his department’s policies based on the latest public safety data. Schnell, and others calling for change, have pointed to the Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s own recent findings that most people who go on to violate their probation do so within the first two years.
He was in the audience one recent afternoon at the Capitol as Schroeder described how her 40-year sentence leaves open the chance of going to prison for up to eight years if she violates probation.
“It’s really unbelievable,” Schnell said. “How does she shake that reality? It’s just that pall that always hangs over you.”
Since taking the job, Schnell picked Sarah Walker, a veteran criminal justice lobbyist, to be his deputy commissioner in charge of overseeing community corrections. Walker has also since publicly called for eliminating sentencing disparities, a move she said would free up time for probation officers to better focus on helping high-risk offenders avoid being sent back to prison.
The issue is also gaining traction within the ranks of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, which is urging a comprehensive review of probation policies. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the association’s thinking has evolved, as probation has long been seen as a positive tool to keep more people out of prison. Still, he cautioned about unintended consequences.
“Sometimes putting a one-size-fits-all type of parameter around it could actually lead to a result that may not be good because you could have a county attorney who might then recommend that the person should go to prison instead of having a probationary time period,” Choi said.
Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, which has closely watched probation in Minnesota and other states, acknowledged that “sentencing is a local phenomenon.” But she also found, in a recent study of 21 states, that Minnesota was one of just four states that did not impose caps on the probation terms judges could impose.
“We have a perception about what’s right based on what we do in our town or in our city or in our judicial district,” Mitchell said. “We also have a difference between what Minnesota considers normal and what other states consider normal.”
A House committee set aside the bills for possible inclusion in a public safety package later this session — never a sure thing. But probation is top of mind this year among both Democrats and Republicans in both chambers.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, is sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate this session, urging a balance between punishment, rehabilitation and “getting people back into the community … and functioning the way they want to live and not having this cloud hanging over them.”
And Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, offered a bill to expand an “alternatives to incarceration” pilot program that began recently in Anoka County. The program targeted nonviolent offenders deemed likely to violate probation to receive specialized services aimed at keeping them out of jail. O’Neill said 62 percent of those who went through the program did not return to prison.
Schroeder won’t be eligible to have her probation terminated early until she has completed 20 years, under a Wright County mandate that three of every five years be served. She recently had to scrap plans to travel to Iceland with a co-worker after finding out that she was barred from leaving the country. And she said she is lucky to be able to stay with her boyfriend as housing has been nearly impossible to find. But she can’t ride with him to his cabin when he has his hunting rifle in tow.
Schroeder recently began showing up for rallies for restoring voting rights to felons, at one point standing before the same microphone through which Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz pledged her support. Schroeder still hasn’t met anyone serving a probation sentence as long as hers, so, leaning on her faith, she mustered the courage to start talking about it.
“I kind of just landed in that spot where I have a voice. … I’m a big believer in God and I feel like things happen for a reason,” Schroeder said.
She paused, before adding: “I guess I try to justify it to make it better, but really it’s not OK.”