Michelle Larkin

Michelle Larkin, a member of the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission and a Minnesota Court of Appeals judge, on Thursday urged the commission to delay a public hearing on a plan to cap probation terms for non-violent offenses at five years. (Dana Ferguson/Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL — A proposal to cap probation terms for nonviolent offenses will come up for a public hearing next week after the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission on Thursday, narrowly blocked a vote to cancel it.

The commission last month voted 6-5 to advance a proposal to cap probation sentences for certain offenses at 5 years. The cap wouldn’t apply to felony homicide and sex offense cases committed on or after Aug. 1, 2020.

And while members split on whether the decision was made fairly and whether it would help even out discrepancies in probation sentences across the state, they voted 6-5 on Thursday to knock down an effort to postpone a public hearing on the proposal.

Minnesota for decades has had clear prison sentencing guidelines. But those guidelines don’t extend to probation and supervision sentencing, resulting in different probation lengths across the state. As a result, probation sentences have varied significantly, with average terms ranging from three years in Hennepin County to seven years in the 7th Judicial District, a swath of the west-central region of the state.

Members of the commission last month were asked to take a hasty vote on the new caps though the topic was set to come up for discussion, not for action. And on Thursday, some raised concerns about the lack of discussion and debate and worried the move to set a limit on probation sentences would lead judges to put more people behind bars when setting sentences.

“People are going to go to prison, that’s not a vindictive response, it’s a reality of this proposal,” Michelle Larkin, a commission member and Minnesota Court of Appeals judge, said.

They also said the commission should take up the issue of disparate probation terms but should take more time to do so. And they said hard caps likely weren’t the best answer.

“I think that probation caps, in general, are a blunt instrument, it’s a one-size-fits-all and I think we need to have judicial discretion,” Christopher Dietzen, a member and retired Supreme Court justice, said.

Supporters of the 5-year cap said the proposal should be allowed to move forward to a public hearing so that more interest groups would be able to come forward and share their opinions. And they argued it was an issue of fairness to pass a new guideline quickly.

“On a day-to-day basis, depending upon where you live, (that) is going to determine oftentimes what your probation term is,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said. “If this is not the language then let’s come up with something different.”

Schnell said the commission in prior situations where the Legislature failed to act opted to move forward with new guidelines on its own.

If it is again approved by the commission after the Dec. 19 public hearing, the guidance would take effect unless the Legislature moved to override it. Democratic lawmakers have voiced support for the cap and Republicans have said they’re open to discussing the proposal, but earlier this year Senate Republicans opted not to take up a similar measure in committee.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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