One of the few major pieces of legislation to pass last Congress was bipartisan criminal justice reform. The stale approach that pushed more punishment, no matter how ineffective or even counterproductive, is fading. But Minnesota still has a long way to go. Let’s start with reforming our probation system and reducing collateral consequences to help people rejoin their communities rather than creating more obstacles.
While Minnesota ranks 47th nationally when it comes to prison time, we’re fifth in terms of probation. If you combine the two to look at total time spent under supervision, we actually rank 13th. That’s a strong indication that our overall punishment is excessive.
This session I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation (HF 2792) to tackle this problem. I appreciate the leadership of practitioners – including prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and probation officers – who have worked on this issue and support common-sense reform of our probation system.
Staggeringly long probation terms
Currently, Minnesota law allows staggeringly long probation terms. Take Jennifer Schroeder, who received one year in prison for drug possession, but a 40-year probation term. She has gone on to graduate from college with a 4.0 GPA, but will suffer the impacts of her probation term – from not being allowed to vote, to not being able to travel out of state, to restrictions on her job and housing – until she is in her 70s. Individuals like Schroeder live in fear that even technical violations unrelated to their original offense could send them back to prison.
Long probation terms are unnecessary. Data from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission shows that most probation revocations occur in the first three years. One percent or less happen after five years. Long terms also burden probation officers. They take valuable time and resources that could be better targeted towards those more at risk of revocation.
Another concern is that probation is applied unequally. In Hennepin County, for example, the average probation term is three years. In other areas, it’s seven years. Those accused of the same crime receive different punishment based simply on where the crime was committed.
My bill would set a five-year cap on probation for felony offenses except murder and criminal sexual conduct, with an ability for prosecutors to apply to a court for two short extensions under specific circumstances, such as being a threat to public safety or failing to pay restitution.
Another issue we must confront are the collateral consequences automatically imposed on ex-offenders after they’ve served their time. There are over 500 collateral consequences in Minnesota. They impact employment, housing, occupational licensing, and public benefits, and many last a lifetime.
A second bipartisan bill I’ve introduced would require notice for people who may be subject to collateral consequences. It would also allow ex-offenders to apply to a court to receive relief from specific collateral consequences, like being barred from a particular occupation.
This would help individuals like a constituent of mine who wanted to pursue a health care degree but was told she shouldn’t apply due to a decade-old conviction, even though she had successfully completed probation. Making it more difficult to get a job increases, not decreases, the chance that someone will fall back into old patterns and recidivate. My bill would also expand job opportunities to Minnesotans who’ve served their time, addressing the current shortage of workers.
Although we may have divided government in Minnesota, criminal justice reform should be one area where we can all agree to act on common sense measures to be smart on crime and help our returning citizens become full members of society once again.
State Rep. Jamie Long DFL-District 61B in Minneapolis, is assistant majority leader of the House of Representatives.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)