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Public safety panel OKs measure to keep probationers out of jail for minor violations

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a guiding philosophy for many people.

It’s also the theme of proposed legislation that would prevent courts from jailing people for minor, first-time parole violations, such as violating a curfew or getting a traffic ticket.

In fact, language in HF1761 includes what could be called a sort of guiding philosophy of its own: “Revocation should only be used as a last resort when rehabilitation has failed.”

“If people commit a crime, they should be held accountable,” said Rep. Athena Hollins (DFL-St. Paul), the bill sponsor. “But often, people under probation supervision are incarcerated for non-criminal technical violations, like not contacting their probation agent.”

The House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee voted 17-1 Friday to approve the bill as amended and send it to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee. The companion, SF2133, sponsored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Courts would be prohibited from revoking a person’s probation and executing a suspended sentence if a person does any of the following as a first probation violation:

  • fails a test for illegal or non-prescribed mood-altering drugs, unless the original crime was drug-related;
  • fails a test for alcohol, unless the original crime was alcohol-related;
  • possesses drug paraphernalia;
  • fails to obtain or maintain employment;
  • fails to pursue a course of study or vocational training;
  • fails to report a change in employment, unless the person is prohibited from having contact with minors and the employment would involve such contact;
  • violates a curfew;
  • fails to report contact with a law enforcement agency, unless the person was charged with a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony; or
  • commits any offense for which the penalty is a petty misdemeanor.

Probation supervisors would be prohibited from issuing orders to judges and police agencies to detain and bring to court a parolee unless there is “a reasonable belief that the order is necessary to prevent the person from escaping or absconding from supervision or that the continued presence of the person in the community presents a risk to public safety.”

“It’s really intended to strike a balance between providing responsive probation that’s tailored to the risk and need of the individual client,” Hollins said.

“Our goal is to provide rehabilitative services and targeted interventions that reduce recidivism and support clients in a way that prevents future involvement in the justice system while improving community safety,” said Catherine Johnson, director of the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The bill would have financial benefits, too. “Probation is significantly cheaper than incarceration,” Hollins said.

The lone no vote came from Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake). She is concerned the bill would require courts to take, or not take, certain actions, which she said is a violation of the autonomy of a separate branch of government.

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