Minnesota Republicans continue to push against a new regulation that caps probation sentences to five years in a race against an impending summer deadline.
In January, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission voted 8-3 to cap felony probation lengths at just five years, in keeping with State Attorney General Keith Ellison’s agenda for criminal justice reform. This new sentencing restriction will take effect August 1, unless the Legislature is able to overturn the new rule before then.
Republicans advanced their push to reverse the Commission’s ruling with a meeting of the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, Wednesday, chaired by Republican State Senator Warren Limmer. The Committee met to discuss the Commission’s rule with an eye to overturning it.
Limmer opened the meeting by questioning how the five year probation cap might affect the administration of justice. “I believe in the haste for addressing the uniformity issue, the majority of members [of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission] missed the mark on proportionality, rationality and predictability,” he said.
“I don’t think it seems rational to have a felony sanction less than some misdemeanors,” he added, highlighting that the Commission’s mandated five year probation cap may create punishments for felonies that are shorter than the punishments for some misdemeanors.
Democratic State Senator Ron Latz opposed Limmer, praising the Commission’s decision as “rational, data driven [and] evidence based.”
“It also sounds to me like it was a very rational policy that was ultimately determined by an 8-3 vote by the guidelines commission,” he said.
However, according to Justice Christopher Dietzen who sits on the Commission and was once its chair, the decision to cap probation lengths was made without adequate data. “Probation duration data is mostly anecdotal. We did not have scientific data [when voting]… it would benefit the commission greatly if we were given the authority to collect that data,” he said.
He also suggested that limiting the ability of judges to hand down longer probation sentences may increase Minnesota’s prison population.
“Those terms that go more than five years from what I’ve heard anecdotally… it’s based on a situation where a judge is faced with a case where there is a presumptive commit to prison and that judge wants to give the offender a break,” he explained.
“And so the break is ‘I’m going to not execute the sentence, I’m going to depart dispositionally but in exchange for that, you have to agree to a longer probation term.’ And that happens I’m told from the County Attorney’s Association with some degree of regularity.”
“When we put a five year hard cap,” he continued, “what’s going to happen is that judges are going to be reluctant to depart dispositionally when the cap is going to be five years instead of a longer period of time.”
“We need to have the flexibility to give the judge discretion to go beyond that five years,” he concluded.
Overturning the five year probation cap would occur via passage of a bill (HF 4225) authored by Republican State Representative Brian Johnson. Johnson’s bill was introduced last week, received its first reading and now sits with the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee awaiting the body’s approval to continue in its path to becoming law.
Johnson has been an outspoken critic of the Commission’s probation cap since it first passed. “It is the role of the Legislature and judiciary — not an unelected group of 11 people — to determine appropriate probation terms for heinous crimes, including sex trafficking, domestic assault and aggravated robbery,” he said in January, according to the Star Tribune.
Watch the hearing: