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Incarceration and probation: Committee gets overview of state corrections’ systems

CORRECTION Jan. 20 - The story peviously misstated how probation services are delivered.

In the first year of the biennium, the Legislature proposes a budget to fund state government and various committees are charged with coming up with specific budget numbers for the state departments and agencies they oversee.

To prepare for that task, committees learn about those agencies and departments. Therefore, the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee heard presentations Friday on two tasks of the Department of Corrections: incarceration and probation.


Department of Corrections

The first presentation, by Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, was an overview of how the department manages the 7,300 inmates in the 10 facilities under its jurisdiction. It focused on what Schnell calls his department’s highest priority: to safely reintegrate inmates into communities upon release.

The average length of incarceration of a new inmate is 31 months, Schnell noted, so corrections staff begin working right away to ensure that very little of that time is “dead time” where inmates are not working toward rehabilitation and reintegration back into the community.

“We want to make sure that during that time we provide the best intervention services and transformative services that we can offer, because that is of benefit to our communities,” Schnell said.

The department’s strategic plan has very specific goals on “transformative programming” for inmates, Schnell said, and is based on the fact that 95% of inmates will eventually return to the community.

“This transformational work is so critical to the safety of our neighborhoods and communities across our state,” said Schnell.

Some of the goals in the department’s strategic plan are to:

  • increase intervention partnerships to effectively deliver community-based programs;
  • increase technical and college training by 400%;
  • improve experience and outcomes for incarcerated parents and their children;
  • increase the number of people released from prison who obtain housing, gain employment, enroll in education, or engage in community-based treatment by 90%; and
  • reduce violation readmissions by 70% through community supervision and access to supportive services.

Developing a strategic plan for the department was itself a new task. It was one of several recommendations in a February 2020 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, which found conditions that reduced safety in state prisons, including persistent staffing shortages, heavy overtime use, suspensions of prisoner activities, unprofessional workplace relationships, limited oversight, and outdated infrastructure.

[MORE: Session Daily story on OLA report]

Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), the committee chair, said the department’s response to the legislative auditor’s report is to be discussed in detail at the committee’s Jan. 19 meeting along with its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Probation supervision services

If a crime is serious enough to result in the state taking away a person’s liberty, that can take the form of either incarceration or probation. The second presentation to the committee was an overview of how the state delivers community supervision, or probation.

Probation services are delivered in three different ways in Minnesota, said Deputy Corrections Commissioner Curtis Shanklin. The department provides about 17% of the supervision of all offense types, felony and non-felony, and currently supervises about 18,000 individuals statewide. The 34 counties operating under the Community Corrections Act provide 71% of total supervision in the state (about 74,000 individuals), and county probation offices supervise 12% (about 12,000 individuals).

For convicted criminals, Minnesota relies heavily on community supervision, Shanklin said. He noted that Minnesota has the fourth-lowest rate of incarceration in the nation, and the fifth-highest supervision rate.

That split is by design and is backed by criminal justice studies, said Catherine Johnson, director of the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“The most volatile and dangerous offenders need to be incarcerated,” she said. “But probation is the best answer both economically and socially for keeping tabs on other levels of non-violent criminals and those who have served their time and are released back into the community.”


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