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Don't be fooled by the annual crush of holiday lights and music, or the two months still remaining until lawmakers return to the State Capitol: At least one key policy proposal faces a pivotal hearing this month in St. Paul.

How Minnesota doles out probation sentences will get another long look when the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission meets on Dec. 19 for a public hearing over whether to formally urge lawmakers to limit the maximum probation felony offenders can receive.

The measure was a top priority for House Democrats last session. It also drew support from the libertarian-leaning Americans For Prosperity, but its prospects faded in the 11th hour of budget negotiations.

Enter Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, an advocate for changing the state's probation guidelines. His position ensures him a seat on the Sentencing Guidelines Commission. Last month, Schnell proposed that the commission recommend capping probationary sentences in its annual report to lawmakers in January. He noted that average probation terms vary from three years to more than seven years, depending on where people are sentenced. Some Minnesotans are serving decadeslong probation sentences.

But Schnell's move to advance probation caps at the Dec. 19 hearing prompted an outcry from Republican lawmakers who accused him of violating open meetings laws. Their rationale was that he forced a vote on what was only listed as a discussion item on the commission's agenda before the meeting.

A final move to formally suggest that change won't happen until Jan. 9, when the commission agrees on its annual report to the Legislature. Though the report is not itself the last word, the commission's recommendations go a long way toward informing where lawmakers may settle on sentencing policy.

That wasn't lost on Schnell, who compared the probation debate to the 2016 battle to overhaul the state's drug sentencing guidelines. Schnell recalled that lawmakers were slow to take action on the changes until the commission spelled out its own suggestions.

This month's meeting also could offer a partial glimpse at Gov. Tim Walz's 2020 legislative wish list.

Walz, a Democrat, joined Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson in co-writing an op-ed for Time magazine calling for changing probation guidelines around the country. They pointed out that Minnesota and Missouri are two of 20 states where more than half of prison admissions are because of technical supervision violations, not separate crimes.

Walz describes criminal justice reform as part of a broader package of priorities that includes education, housing and voting rights. But this is one issue he thinks is unifying.

"I think there's going to be things that the Republican Senate is certainly not interested in that I think are important, but I'm not going to be wasting valuable time this session," Walz said in an interview. "I think this one holds great potential for bipartisan support."

Stephen Montemayor • 651-925-5048


Monday: Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead presents her 90-day review to House Health and Human Services Finance panel.