Demetria Carter wadded tissues in her shaking hands as she described the moment her life fell apart.
A decade ago, the Sunday school teacher and mother of two found herself navigating a bout of mental illness that earned her a felony conviction and 79 days in county lockup. But her release didn’t spell the end of her punishment.
“Even though I had served my time and was held accountable, I was on parole for 10 years,” Carter, 64, told the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission during a public hearing on probation reform Thursday afternoon. “I couldn’t vote. I couldn’t participate in any of the community activities I had before.”
The 11-member commission is weighing a measure that would cap felony-sentence probation lengths to five years. If approved, the guidelines would apply to all felons, except for individuals convicted of homicides or sex offenses.
Legislation to limit probation sentences in Minnesota — which has one of the nation’s largest rates of post-release supervision — has long been a top priority among Democratic lawmakers but failed to pass during the 11th-hour budget negotiations last session.
Dozens packed the committee room in St. Paul on Thursday, where nearly 30 people gave emotional testimony in support of a measure they believe will provide more fair, empathetic treatment to those entangled in the criminal justice system.
“Research does not show that lengthy probation periods increase public safety or reduce recidivism. In fact, excessive probationary terms for low-risk individuals have actually been shown to increase the risk of recidivism,” said Midge Christianson, who appeared on behalf of Minnesota Association of Community Corrections Act Counties, which supervises two-thirds of the state’s felony probationers.
“We simply don’t have the resources to keep track of individuals for lengthy periods of time,” she said.
A lack of uniformity among sentencing laws has led to cases like that of Jennifer Schroeder, who spent one year in jail on a nonviolent drug offense but won’t be off probation until 2053. By then, she’ll be 71 years old.
Until then, the felony conviction means she can’t easily find housing or change jobs. “I can’t travel — practically for the rest of my life,” she told the committee.
Policy experts at the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota testified that felons are most likely to reoffend in the first few years — and very few commit new crimes after five years under supervision.
Rep. Jamie Long, a Minneapolis Democrat who authored a bill encompassing this proposal in the House, testified that Minnesota is out of step with peer states like Iowa and Missouri, which have already implemented five-year probation caps.
“I don’t believe that states that have enacted it regretted it,” he said. “They’ve seen it to be a fair system.”
But several detractors questioned whether the commission had the authority to vote on hard probation caps, rather than presumptive sentence guidelines that allow judges more discretion based on the respective crimes.
Robert Small, a former Hennepin County judge who now leads the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said his peers are in favor of reform but disagreed with the current language. “From the county attorneys’ perspective, this is outside the committee’s scope,” he said.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has been an outspoken critic of the state’s long probation terms, which can span decades.
In an op-ed to the Star Tribune this week, Schnell laid out his case for advancing caps on probation lengths, arguing that the measure would reduce disparities by providing more consistency in sentencing.
“Yes, the [commission] could wait to see what the Legislature does or spend another year studying the issue, but at what cost? The short answer: inexplicably long, wasteful, ineffective probation terms that vary depending upon your judicial district,” he wrote. “In other words: justice by geography. It’s hard to explain the differences when similarly situated people (same offense and background) do not receive similar treatment.”
His proposal has faced resistance from several commissioners, including former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Christopher Dietzen and Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Larkin, who don’t want to rush into such a sweeping change in state sentencing law.
A vote won’t be taken on the matter until Jan. 9, when the commission finalizes its annual report to the Legislature.
Though the report is not itself the last word, the commission’s recommendations go a long way toward informing where lawmakers may settle on sentencing policy. Unless the Legislature overrules their decision, new guidelines automatically take effect in August.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, questioned what he called a “one-size-fits-all” probation sentence and called for more thoughtful consideration during the coming session.
“How do you feel being a de facto legislator?” asked Limmer, one of the final speakers in the 3 ½-hour hearing. “The only difference is that I’m an elected official and you’re not. You’re an appointed body.”