Reform Probation Length

California Reforms Probation Length; Minnesota Should Follow

Recently, California’s Governor signed a significant criminal justice reform bill. The new law will limit the maximum time a person may be on probation or parole in certain circumstances. For misdemeanors, the limit will be one year. For felony offenses, the limit will be two years! There are limited exceptions to those caps, but generally this is momentous news.

“Once you are in the system, it is hard to get out of the system.” As the saying goes, too often people on probation or parole violate the rules of their supervision, even for minor infractions or by being charged with new minor offenses. The result is longer supervision, more jail time, which further amplifies the problem of mass incarceration. At the end of 2018 nearly 4.4 million people were under supervision. That is more than double the amount of people incarcerated in jails and prisons.

In my recent law review article, I discuss the leading role probation and parole play in our country’s mass incarceration moral failure. “Pure [prison] abolitionists do not merely aim to replace jail with probation. The overall goal is to have a criminal justice system that focuses on crime prevention to make it less likely people will break the law in the first place.” What better way to prevent possible minor probation or parole infractions than by reducing the length of supervision? California gets it. The Golden State understands that minor criminal justice reform is not enough to tackle a major problem. This new limitation on probation lengths is a significant piece of reform, especially for felony-level offenses. Minnesota, and other states, should take note.

In Minnesota, earlier this year, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines approved a five-year felony probation cap in certain circumstances. While this was a step in the right direction, it is merely a guideline and not a hard and fast rule. Plus, five years is still too long in many circumstances. The simple fact of being on probation or parole can be detrimental psychologically for people. Tack on supervising agents shadowing over your life and it can be even more damaging to your psyche and growth.

In a world of political divisiveness and the law & order mantra, any leniency in the criminal justice system can be seen as weak and undeserved in some circles. What needs to be clear is that there is a massive difference between the “dangerous few” who are incredibly unlikely to be rehabilitated and those that are stuck it the system on minor and non-violent offenses. The “dangerous few” are not responsible for the mass-incarceration boom. The law & order worry of all “criminals” running rampant and the ensuing over-encompassing laws is the driving force behind mass incarceration. Keeping people off probation is a good thing. We want them to reintegrate back into society without the worry and burden of potential probation violations holding them back. California just took a giant step forward towards that path. Minnesota should follow suit.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI lawyer in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past five years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Attorney Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Attorney Minnesota; and Federal Crimes Lawyer Twin Cities.

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