ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Wednesday, Nov. 6, approved a five-year cap on probation sentences, potentially setting new parameters for judges sentencing nonviolent felony offenders.

The decision advances the proposal, which will come up for a public hearing next month. It will also be put up for a final vote in January.

The 6-5 vote to advance the plan comes after the state Legislature earlier this year considered but didn't act on legislation that would've set the five-year cap. Minnesota has had clear prison sentencing guidelines for decades. But those guidelines don’t extend to probation and supervision sentencing, resulting in different probation lengths across the state.

And that lack of guidance has yielded drastically different probation sentences, which can range from an average of three years in Hennepin County to seven years in the 7th Judicial District, a swath of the west-central region of the state.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell last month told Forum News Service it was important to even out probation sentences to ensure fairness in the criminal justice system. Schnell said the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is also considering a probation sentencing grid to allow for more uniform probation sentencing around the state.

Rob Stewart, the research director for the Minnesota Justice Research Center, a nonpartisan group that researches criminal justice issues, has described the previous framework as the "Wild West." And he said there’s no benefit to having probation terms stretch into the decades.

If an offender does not re-offend within seven years of their first offense, he said, the likelihood of them committing another crime later is about equal to someone who has never committed a crime.

Members of the Minnesota Legislature's People of Color and Indigenous Caucus applauded the move Wednesday in a news release, saying it could help make sentences more equitable.

"For far too long in our state, both the number of individuals sentenced to probation and the length of the terms have exceeded what’s needed to promote deterrence or reduce recidivism," the group of 19 lawmakers said. "The cost of Minnesota’s failure to consistently apply fair and useful probation terms has been particularly harmful to communities of color and to Indigenous communities."