Criminal Justice

Minnesota Caps Length of Probation Sentences

A Reason investigation earlier this year detailed the case of a Minnesota woman who was sentenced to 40 years on probation for a drug crime.


The Minnesota Legislature passed changes to its probation system last week that will cap probation sentences at five years for most offenses, and it will apply retroactively, meaning those with longer sentences will be eligible to have their terms reduced.

That will be welcome news for Minnesotans serving long probation sentences, like Jennifer Schroeder. Reason profiled Schroeder's case earlier this year in an investigation into the problems with probation systems across the country. Schroeder was sentenced in 2013 to a year in jail for a drug offense—and 40 years on probation. As it stands, she won't be off probation until she's 71 years old, in October 2053. 

"I don't think I've ever met anybody," Schroeder told Reason, "even people who have murdered other people or assault or arson, or any big crimes I can think of, that has a sentence that long."

The legislation, part of a large omnibus bill, codifies a five-year cap on probation enacted in 2020 by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Now, Schroeder and other Minnesotans serving probation sentences longer than five years will be eligible for resentencing.

At the time of Schroeder's sentencing, Minnesota allowed probation sentences to be up to the maximum sentence you could get in prison for the crime. Her case was an extreme outlier, but it illustrated both the problems with the state's statutory scheme and the deeper issues with probation itself. 

Schroeder, who has since graduated from college and become a drug and alcohol counselor, testified in support of the legislation earlier this year. "The [number of] people that are violating on minor infractions and getting sent back to prison is astounding," she said in a committee hearing. "And the fear that you live with if you're on probation and you're doing the right thing is still something that resonates with me every day."

Probation has quietly turned into the largest form of correctional control in the country. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the estimated 5.5 million adults in the U.S. who were under some form of corrections control at the end of 2020, more than half—3,053,700 people—were on probation.

Probation's original purpose was to help people get their lives back on track without punishment while staying accountable, but in many states, it's become an alternate system of punishment that sets offenders up to fail. For example, Idaho has a staggeringly high rate of prison admissions for probation and parole violations. According to a report last year from the Idaho Department of Correction, 80 percent of 2021's admissions were for parole or probation violations.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported last year on how an extended probation program for juvenile offenders had turned into a "back door to prison," funneling minors into adult prisons for technical violations of probation.

In addition to numerous terms and conditions that probationers must follow, lest they be sent back to prison, they also lose many civil rights, such as the right to own a gun and the right to vote. 

But some states are trying to get a handle on their bloated, ineffectual probation systems. Earlier this year, Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz also signed a bill into law restoring the right to vote to people on probation and parole, a move that re-enfranchised an estimated 55,000 people in the state.