The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission is pushing forward a recommendation to cap all felony probation sentences at five years, despite objections from nearly half the group’s members and a Republican state lawmaker.
The panel approved the proposal on a 6-5 vote Wednesday, a decision that appears to have blindsided some members who were under the impression that the item was only up for discussion, not action.
State Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, accused the commission of violating state open meeting laws by voting on a proposal that was listed as a discussion item on the agenda.
He said members were shown the proposal just a day before state Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who sits on the body, brought it up for a vote. Several members objected during the meeting and sought to table the proposal, Nash added.
“I think that if they’re going to truly be transparent, that it should have been properly noticed so that the public could have come and given commentary,” Nash said. “This is something that ultimately has to come to the Legislature, and it seems to me that they’ve already set the parameters of what they’re going to have the Legislature say, and that’s something I take exception to.”
In an interview, Schnell countered that the approval only moves the probation cap proposal along in the process. The next step is a December hearing where the public can weigh in, before it comes up for a final vote in January.
If given final approval, the commission will recommend the proposal to the Legislature, which convenes in February. The proposal was introduced in this year’s legislative session but was not included in the final public safety bill.
“This is not a … midnight raid,” Schnell said. “The notion that there was an intentional effort to limit public scrutiny — I think what was proposed is contrary to that because we actually proposed a process that actually engages in public input.”
Schnell argued that the issue merits quick action. Minnesota ranks fifth in the nation in the percentage of residents who are on probation. And because of the way the law is written, probation sentences here can range anywhere from four to 40 years.
While Minnesota has clear prison sentencing guidelines in place, the same cannot be said for the state’s probation and supervision systems.
The result: a patchwork of probation lengths across the state. Probation terms range from an average of three years in some parts of the state to more than seven years in others.
“If no change is made, what happens along the way is that people are impacted by this variation in probation terms where it is justice by geography,” Schnell said.
Technical violations are not new offenses. They are violations of the conditions of probation — which can be as minor as missing a meeting or having a drink — that can result in someone being sent back to prison.
The study found that two in five inmates admitted into Minnesota prisons last year were returning from supervision. The majority of that group — 88 percent — had violated the conditions of probation or supervision, not committed new crimes.