A person convicted of drug possession might be sentenced to three years of probation in Hennepin County. That same offense could draw a five-year probationary term in Ramsey County or an even longer seven years of supervision from a greater Minnesota court.
Each case is different, and there can be mitigating circumstances that call for differences in probation terms. But when most variables are equal, there shouldn’t be such wide disparities from county to county. To correct that and other problems with probation, several state lawmakers have offered smart proposals that would bring more fairness to the system, make better use of resources and improve the odds that ex-offenders will successfully rejoin their communities.
Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, is the lead author of a bill that would limit probation terms to five years. He is also sponsoring a measure that would require the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission to establish recommended probation guidelines similar to those that courts use for post-conviction sentences.
In the same spirit, Reps. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, and Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, have introduced legislation to expand an “alternatives to incarceration” pilot program that has shown success in Anoka County. And Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, has authored a similar bill that calls for a better balance between punishment, rehabilitation and “getting people back into the community.”
State officials have long been proud of the state’s low incarceration rate. Minnesota ranks 47th among states for locking up people, but No. 5 in the probation rate. According to state figures, at the end of 2017, about 105,400 (2 percent) of Minnesotans were on probation. Of that number, about 53,000 were the result of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.
“In too many cases, when we couldn’t throw the book at them on the prison side, we do it through probation,” Long told an editorial writer. “But many of those lengthy probation terms don’t have any real relation to our goals of rehabilitation, fairness and just punishment.”
Lengthy probations too often use resources that should be focused on those most in need of supervision. Probation officers with heavy caseloads must spread themselves thin and can’t give adequate attention to clients who are more likely to reoffend. Research shows that people who reoffend or violate probation will do so within the first two to three years of being under supervision, so there typically isn’t an additional benefit to imposing longer terms.
Another problem with the current probation system is that lengthy terms create obstacles for ex-offenders who are trying to reintegrate into their communities. Even if they have been model citizens for several years, continuing under supervision can prevent them from finding housing or employment. And sometimes the probationary restrictions have little relation to the crime committed.
Several surveys have shown that a healthy majority of Minnesotans favor probation system reforms. Polling reported by the Justice Action Network found that 82 percent of likely Minnesota voters supported standardizing probation guidelines, and 61 percent favored a five-year cap on felony probation.
And in December, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law after Congress overwhelmingly approved the significant criminal justice reforms. That new law shortens sentences for some offenders and expands job training and other programs for prisoners.
In Minnesota, probation reforms similar to those proposed this year have been offered before at the Legislature, but they didn’t make it into law. However, with bipartisan support and increased momentum to adopt criminal justice reforms, the 2019 Legislature should act to bring more fairness and effectiveness to Minnesota’s probation system.