ST. PAUL — A proposal to cap probation sentences for most defendants at five years with an exception for those convicted of homicide or criminal sex offenses garnered hours of emotional testimony at the Capitol complex.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday, Dec. 19, took more than three hours of testimony from dozens of probationers, crime victims, professors, lawyers, community members and others that sought to weigh in on the plan.
If approved in their Jan. 9 meeting, the proposal will take effect without legislative intervention. And that irked some lawmakers that feel they'll have to play cleanup in the Statehouse.
The change is critical, those with extended probation sentences said, as it could help them find housing, professional and personal opportunities and potentially a pardon from the state later on.
"I think we have enough statistics, I think we have enough numbers that this probation cap is necessary and is needed," said Brian Fullman, an organizer with the advocacy group ISAIAH who has a felony on his record. "Do you understand the effect of being on probation for so many years after you've been in jail? You don't feel included. How do you expect us to adopt a certain society when society is telling us, 'We're not ready for you yet. Go back in the oven and wait a little while.'"
Fullman sat with Jen Schroeder, a substance abuse counselor serving a 40-year probation sentence for a possession conviction. Schroeder will be on probation until she is 71 unless the sentence is adjusted.
Minnesota has clear prison sentencing guidelines, but those guidelines don’t cover probation and supervision sentencing, resulting in different probation lengths across the state.
And those discrepancies are "embarrassing," State Public Defender William Ward said.
Research suggests that there’s no benefit to having probation terms stretch into the decades. If an offender does not reoffend within seven years of their first offense, the likelihood of them committing another crime later is about equal to someone who has never committed a crime.
While defendants in Hennepin County face probation terms that average three years, those in the 7th Judicial District, a swath of the west-central region of the state, face average probation sentences of seven years. And for about 5% of those sentenced in Minnesota, probation terms range from 15 to 40 years, according to the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota.
"Our current system is based on geography. Period. And this body needs to do something about it," Ward said. "Work together and fashion a proposal that works for everyone."
Others who'd worked on the legislative proposal said the panel should leave the work in setting caps to lawmakers or at least build in more exceptions so that judges have the discretion to address more violent crimes and to tack on up to five years on top of the cap if offenders continue to prove a threat to public safety, fail to complete treatment or don't pay restitution to victims.
The commission's proposal raised red flags for some prosecutors and judges because it wouldn't exempt from the five-year cap violent crimes like assault, aggravated robbery, making terroristic threats and kidnapping. The Minnesota County Attorneys Association, which worked to bring legislation earlier this year that would cap probation terms at five years except for in cases of violent offenses, said it opposed the commission's plan.
"Members of the commission, this is not the right language," Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said. "The Legislature should be able to act first before the commission acts on this proposal."
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell has said he brought the proposal through the commission to force the Legislature's hand into acting on probation reform. And a key gatekeeper on Thursday said the measure likely would have that effect.
"We'll be forced to take it up if they pass they ideas that acting Commissioner Schnell has suggested," Sen. Warren Limmer, who chairs the Senate Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, said. “I’m open to reviewing the probation system, I've always said that. But doing an end-run around the Legislature that’s responsible to the public, as opposed to the sentencing guidelines commission that’s responsible to the administration, I think is improper."
Limmer closed the panel's hearing by questioning their authority in passing the measure and objecting to the "one-size-fits-all" nature of a cap. And he suggested he would aim to convince members to block it.
The Minnesota House of Representatives passed a similar measure with broader discretion for judges earlier this year and Democrats in the House and Senate, as well as Gov. Tim Walz, have said they support the commission's effort to cap probation terms.