Cheryl Hix was in and out of recovery for years. In 2005, she was airlifted to a trauma center in Minneapolis after taking 180 pills of Klonopin. She still can’t remember the episode.
After her recovery, Cheryl was so guilt-ridden that she started drinking again. While struggling with alcoholism, she was arrested and charged with three nonviolent offenses. She served 178 days in jail and met all the requirements of her accompanying five-year probation sentence.
Now clean and sober and looking forward to putting her past behind her, Cheryl was shocked at what she thought was her final probation hearing, when the judge said it would be best if she stayed on probation for an additional year. Confused, she asked for his rationale. None was given. This went on for five years.
Even though she had served her time, Cheryl couldn’t escape her past. In the aftermath of the additional probation, she suffered depression and anxiety. Although she has managed to stay clean for 12 years, she says the anxiety of continued probation made her “more apt to go back out and use, which would have violated my probation terms and sent me back to prison.”
Minnesota has a probation problem. State law governing felony probation is open-ended, resulting in unpredictable terms and disproportionate sentences from county to county. In some cases, people who commit nonviolent offenses have received as many as 40 years of probation.
Probation helps to balance our criminal-justice system by offering a way to hold people accountable in their own communities instead of behind bars. Expanded use of probation can be very effective in keeping people safe while avoiding the collateral costs of incarceration on families. But disproportional punishments have thrown the system out of balance. A bill before Minnesota lawmakers, HF 689, would help solve this problem by clarifying maximum probation terms for certain offenses.
Minnesota has adopted fair, common-sense sentencing reforms like this in the past. State sentencing guidelines already prioritize time in prison only for those who really need it and offer largely proportional sentence length. Unfortunately, probation is nowhere near as clear.
If sentenced to probation, a person’s time on supervision may be greatly increased not by the elements of the crime but the county where the person lives.
A special report from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission found that probation terms vary significantly by region. For example, the average term in Minneapolis is just over three years, while the average term in St. Cloud is just over seven. Should someone receive lengthier probation just because they committed their crime in the wrong ZIP code? This variation is unjust and unjustifiable.
The unduly lengthy terms that result from the variability in sentencing increases the likelihood and number of repeat offenses, which contributes to overincarceration — something Minnesota has worked hard to address.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly a quarter of Americans on probation or parole return to prison for technical violations, like missing a weekly meeting. It can be tough for any of us to make a standing weekly meeting, especially when you factor in work schedules, sick children and other real-life scheduling problems. Imagine trying not to miss one for 20, 30 or 40 years. The longer probation drags on, the harder it is to meet the requirements, making people more likely to repeat the cycle of incarceration on a technicality.
Lengthy probation terms also make our communities less safe. Research has consistently shown that oversupervising low-risk individuals can do more harm than good by disrupting supportive elements of their lives, such as family, education and employment, and mixing them in with people who are higher-risk. Shorter probation terms are more effective, cost less, and result in safer communities and stronger families.
Probation is most effective over a short period of time when the conditions are tailored to the offense and ease up as time goes on. Otherwise, those on probation, like Cheryl, become worn down by their inability to escape their past and are more likely to reoffend and return to prison.
It’s time to correct Minnesota’s disproportionate probation sentences. State lawmakers should make 2019 the year they solve the state’s probation problem.
Kate Trammell is the director of state policy at Prison Fellowship.