ST. PAUL —The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday, Jan. 9, is set to vote on a proposal to cap most felony probation terms at five years, a move supporters hope would prevent probation terms that vary widely based on where an offender is sentenced.
Under the proposal, felony offenses with the exception of homicide and criminal sex crimes would be subject to no more than five-year probation sentences. Minnesota for decades has had guidelines for jail and prison sentences, but the same guidelines haven't been spelled out for supervision sentences.
And that has led to discrepancies in sentencing around the state. While a defendant in Hennepin County faces 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.
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.
Prosecutors and judges, along with some conservative lawmakers, worry that other violent offenders should be subject to longer probation terms if judges think they're needed. And they raised red flags about the proposal not offering judges the option to extend probation sentences past five years if offenders fail to complete treatment, pay restitution or if they continue to pose a threat to public safety.
Commission members last month heard hours of testimony last month from lawyers, ex-offenders, probation officers, crime victims and faith groups about the potential consequences of setting a cap on probation terms statewide. And members offered little comment about how they planned to vote this week.
In an earlier meeting, the 11-member commission voted 6-5 to take the issue to a vote so that it could be included in the group's report to the Legislature this month. And an effort to delay a December public hearing was voted down on a 6-5 vote, signaling a slim majority will vote the measure into effect Thursday.
Without legislative intervention, the changes will take effect in August. And that means offenders sentenced after Aug. 1 won't be subject to probation terms longer than five years.
But Republican legislators have said they plan to take up reforms during the legislative session if commission members pass it.
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.