ST. PAUL — Beginning Aug. 1, most felony offenders can expect to get no more than five years probation as part of their sentences.
The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday, Jan. 9, voted 8-3 to approve guidelines that would cap presumptive probation sentences for most offenders in the state at five years. Homicides, criminal sex offenses and criminal vehicular homicide would be exempt from the cap.
The measure comes with some exceptions for judges who can depart upward from the 5-year guideline. And it could be changed if state lawmakers veto or alter the proposal during the 2020 legislative session. The change wouldn't affect the nearly 50,000 Minnesotans already on probation.
Commissioners' decision to set a cap on supervision periods will have profound impacts on offenders aiming to reform their lives and reintegrate into the community, proponents of the change said. But opponents, including prosecutors and judges, worried it would force judges to put more people behind bars rather than sentencing them to probation.
The panel's decision came after more than a month of debate over the plan and after lawmakers considered but failed to pass significant changes in the Legislature. In Minnesota, guidelines for prison sentencing have been clearly spelled out for decades. But the state hasn't created a similar guideline for sentencing supervision.
And as a result, probation sentences around the state have varied for the same offenses.
"We are proposing a big change for Minnesota but it's not a big change nationally and it’s not out of the realm of what probation should be,” Commission Chair Kelly Lyn Mitchell said. “I understand the concerns, but we are in a place where we are very much behind the curve of what modern probation should be.”
Criminal justice researchers have found that offenders who go seven years without committing a crime after their first offense are as likely to re-offend as a person who has never offended. And supporters of reforms say that research lends support to capping probation terms and frontloading support services to those on supervision.
But county attorneys and judges who've weighed sentencing decisions for decades worried that it wouldn't be tough enough on other violent offenses and would limit judges' ability to tailor sentences to each defendant.
While the panel agreed to provide exceptions to the cap for some attempted felony offenses or conspiracy to commit the offenses, some commissioners raised red flags about trying to hastily reform the probation sentencing process. And they warned the group's actions could lead to unintended consequences.
“I want to do probation reform that’s right,” Commissioner Christopher Dietzen, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, said. “I don’t want to be responsible for a mess down the road because we wanted to push this thing through.”
Advocates including former probationers, defense attorneys, faith leaders and crime victims said the move would even out disparate supervision sentences across the state. And more than a dozen that filled the hearing room near the Capitol applauded as the commission announced its vote altering the law.
"This is a huge win for the state of Minnesota. This is something we can actually leverage," Brian Fullman, an organizer with advocacy group ISAIAH, said. Fullman finished a seven-year probation term in 1999. "This is just huge, very huge. Colossal."
Republican legislators Thursday were quick to call the move an "overreach" by the unelected board. Some have said they plan to take up reforms during the legislative session to allow for more discretion for judges.
Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz have supported probation reform and said they plan to pass changes in the statehouse this year. Similar efforts to cap felony probation sentences with some exceptions came up short in the Legislature last year.