Over the past several years, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, state public defenders and a variety of criminal justice reform advocacy organizations worked together to develop a more consistent approach to the length of probation terms in Minnesota. Their collaborative effort resulted in a proposal that capped most probation lengths at five years. During the last legislative session, state Rep. Jamie Long authored a bill encompassing this proposal, which was passed by the Minnesota House. Unfortunately, the bill was not heard in the Minnesota Senate and did not become law.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC) serves to develop and maintain a model for rational and consistent sentencing standards that promote public safety and reduce disparity in sentencing throughout the state.
Minnesota law provides that “sentencing pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines is … a procedure based on state public policy to maintain uniformity, proportionality, rationality, and predictability,” and also authorizes the MSGC to “establish appropriate sanctions for offenders for whom imprisonment is not proper,” including with respect to “probation and the conditions thereof.”
During the MSGC’s October meeting, commission members heard a presentation on probation lengths in Minnesota. The data showed a notable disparity in probation length, depending upon the judicial district imposing the probation sentence.
At the Nov. 6 meeting of the MSGC, I moved a policy provision forward based on language from a probation cap bill approved by the House Public Safety Committee during the last legislative session. During the meeting, I argued that the proposal I offered provided “uniformity, proportionality, rationality and predictability” to probation terms. The commission decided narrowly (6-5) to move the proposal forward to a public hearing.
As some may know, before having the honor to serve as the commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, I worked as a police officer and police chief for nearly 27 years. I understand and recognize the importance of accountability for involvement in criminal wrongdoing. At the same time, I see a compelling need for us to effectively use our limited criminal justice resources by promoting transformative change that makes our communities safer. Across our nation, there has been a movement toward the creation of smarter, fairer, and more transparent application of sentencing policies.
Having heard the stories of probation term disparity from affected people and their family members across our state, along with a commitment to data-driven and evidence-based practices, I felt compelled by conscience to offer motion on a specific proposal. Though some argue that the action by the slim majority of MSGC commissioners represents a lack of public process, the public hearing will precede a final vote by the full commission. Should some variation of the five-year probation cap proposal be approved by the commission, it will be part of the commission’s report to the Legislature in mid-January.
The time to move forward on probation reform is now. Waiting to develop consistency in policy increases the potential harm caused by disproportionately long probation terms. The commission will hear directly from the public on this impact, along with any concerns over the reform measures at the upcoming public hearing.
Yes, the MSGC 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. 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.
I believe inaction is contrary to the MSGC’s legislatively created mission and authority to act. The MSGC, with the input, participation, and voice of all stakeholder groups and the public, can develop and implement a clear and meaningful probation length policy.
We should act now because:
• Without action, public safety may suffer. Excessive probation terms create larger probation caseloads, making it more difficult to provide supervision to high-risk offenders, which can minimize the potential for reoffending.
• Without action, we waste public resources because, for the vast majority of offenses, five years of successful probation adjustment demonstrates meaningful risk reduction.
• Without action, individuals with excessive probation terms have to wait years — even decades — to apply for expungement, vote, and often face other collateral consequences, such as housing or employment limitations.
• Without action, principles of fundamental fairness and equity suffer as a result of inconsistent and overly punitive policies that can make us less safe.
To review the proposal under consideration, visit the MSGC webpage at mn.gov/sentencing-guidelines/meetings/.
Please let the MSGC know your thoughts by sending your comments to email@example.com or attend the upcoming public hearing, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, at 1:30 p.m., Room 1100, of the Minnesota Senate Building, 95 University Ave. W., St. Paul, MN 55155.
Paul Schnell is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections is a member of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.