Recent meetings of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission have been bogged down in procedural tangles over a proposal to limit probation in Minnesota, but it’s long past time to correct the inequities in this system.
The commission will consider at its Thursday meeting a proposal by Public Safety Commissioner Paul Schnell that would limit probation to five years, with exceptions for the most violent crimes including rape and murder. It would also attempt to remove inequities in probation periods based on geography.
Five commissioners, including a former Minnesota Supreme Court judge, a district court judge, an appeals court judge and a county attorney, voted to delay the hearing because they believe the procedure for bringing the proposal forth may be sullied by legal issues and they worry the proposals haven’t been properly vetted.
The key to this proposal is that a proper public hearing be held and all have time to study and examine the proposal that has been out since November. Commissioners who want to delay the hearing say it was not properly listed on the agenda as a proposal instead was just a “discussion” item.
That seems like a technicality to us.
The timeline is important because the commission must approve the proposal by its Jan. 9 meeting to come in before a legislative deadline of Jan. 15. The Legislature does not have to approve it, but if it gives no approval, the likely outcome, the guidelines are put into place.
Having the guidelines in place sooner than later is the issue. Every delay in changing the unfair guidelines is a delay in justice.
A report shows that average probation periods vary widely across the state for ostensibly the same set of crimes. In west central Minnesota in the 7th Judicial District, the average probation is 7.4 years. In Hennepin County, it’s 3.3 years. In the Mankato’s 5th Judicial District, the average probation is 6.1 years.
In written comments to the commission, the faith based racial justice organization ISAIAH in a strongly worded statement called for eliminating the probation inequity, saying “A few politicians and people in power who powerfully and financially benefit from the perpetual punishment of Black, white and brown people in our state must not continue to set the terms of who’s deserving of redemption.”
In addition, the science of recidivism shows that five years of probation would be optimal for most crimes. If an offender hasn’t re-offended in three or four years, they’re not likely to re-offend after that, according to studies.
But in some cases, where judges can issue probation up to 40 years, offenders may commit a minor parole violation that lands them back in jail with a waning chance of re-integrating into society.
And the Legislature has shown it cannot resolve this issue with the Democratic led House passing the reforms last year and the Republican-led Senate rejecting them.
So it seems reasonable that the public hearing go forward on Thursday and the commission take its cue from public input.
Minnesota is an outlier among states for having overly harsh probation requirements, and it impacts the ability of offenders to rejoin society.