A Republican lawmaker is calling foul on a Sentencing Guidelines Commission move to advance caps on probation lengths in Minnesota, long a point of contention in the Legislature.
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, accused Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell of violating state open-meeting law Wednesday when he forced a vote on a recommendation that was listed only as a discussion item on the commission’s agenda. The measure would limit felony-sentence probation lengths to five years.
Nash, an assistant House minority leader, called the caps “a dramatic departure from current law” which should be subject to advance notice and discussion before the commission takes action.
Kelly Lyn Mitchell, who chairs the commission, said Thursday that the vote was not a final vote to recommend changes to Minnesota’s probation guidelines but rather to schedule a public hearing on Dec. 19. Any final decision to recommend capping probation sentences in Minnesota would take place in January when the commission submits its annual report to the Legislature, Mitchell said.
“There’s a lot of time for public input and for the various interest groups to have time to review the policy and think about it and let us know their thoughts,” Mitchell said.
An agenda for Wednesday’s meeting on the commission’s website listed the item as “Probation — Next Steps.” It was marked as a discussion item rather than an action item that would require a vote. But Schnell, a member of the sentencing commission, moved ahead with a proposal to cap probation sentences.
Nash said commission members received a memo from Schnell just one day before the meeting arguing for adoption of the new caps. But the agenda didn’t change. Nash said that at the meeting several members of the commission objected to the vote and that five sought to table the proposal for another meeting.
“Taking action on an agenda item without proper notice violates the integrity of this commission, especially when the move was made by a member of the Governor’s cabinet,” Nash said in a statement Thursday. Schnell was appointed corrections commissioner by DFL Gov. Tim Walz.
Schnell wrote in the memo that he was concerned “that a failure to consider the rationality, proportionality, and uniformity of probation terms” is contrary to the commission’s statutory mandate.
Schnell has been an outspoken critic of the state’s long probation terms, which can span decades. Legislation to cap probation sentences in Minnesota, which has one of the nation’s largest rates of probation supervision, has long been a top priority among Democratic state lawmakers.
“When I think about this, we are seeing people that are being harmed every day by these decisions that are made,” Schnell said in an interview Thursday. “All we did is we provided an opportunity for deeper public engagement in the public hearing process.”
According to a study released Thursday by the ACLU and the Urban Institute, 2 in 5 inmates entering Minnesota prisons last year were returning from community supervision. Nearly 90% were going to prison for violating the terms of their probation, not for committing new crimes.
The Democratic-led state House passed a sentencing cap last session as part of its public-safety package, but the proposal did not survive end-of-session negotiations with GOP leaders. The legislation could get another look in 2020.