SAINT PAUL, Minn. – Citing the Minnesota criminal justice system’s costly reliance on probation and community supervision, a bipartisan group of Minnesota House members gathered Tuesday to launch a series of community-centered public safety reforms. The lawmakers were joined by local elected officials and public safety experts to outline improvements to deliver more effective outcomes for everyone involved, including crime victims, those who work in the criminal justice system, and community members, as well as for offenders to move forward in a positive direction.
Monday, the Justice Action Network released findings of a survey showing significant statewide public support for probation reforms like those being heard in the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Division, chaired by Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL – Saint Paul).
“We are working to move Minnesota toward a community-centered public safety approach, where the whole community engages in problem solving when crimes are committed or people’s behaviors are misunderstood. As legislators we are committed to thoughtfully examine our approach to many aspects of our criminal justice system, including probation,” Rep. Mariani said. “Overuse of lengthy probation terms often sets offenders up for failure and is a massive cost driver in our corrections system. Legislators from both parties, are innovatively looking for ways to increase safety and remove racial inequities, by involving all members - in addition to law enforcement - to re-envision the way we think about criminal justice that builds up human capacity for healthy and safer communities.”
While Minnesota has a low incarceration rate at 47th in the nation, it ranks fifth in percentage of residents on community supervision. This reliance in-turn drives prison costs; one-fourth of those incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater are there for short-term stays due to probation violations. High numbers of Minnesotans on probation also leads to higher caseloads for workers, meaning less attention is available for high-risk offenders. Racial and geographic disparities have also been identified within sentences.
“The Minnesota Department of Corrections supports efforts that bring geographic uniformity to our system of probation and reduce the overburdened caseloads of our dedicated community service agents,” said Sarah Walker, Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “Geographic uniformity coupled with reduced caseloads allows probation agents to target their time and resources to focus on the highest risk individuals and provide the greatest public safety return on investment.”
Rep. Jamie Long (DFL – Minneapolis) is chief author of two bills to address the issue. HF 689, would cap probation assignments at five years. HF 997 would require the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC) to establish a presumptive probation term for offenders based on the characteristics of the offense and the offender. The MSGC was given the authority to establish appropriate sanctions for offenders for whom imprisonment was not proper, but has not done so. It also calls upon the MSGC to modernize its data collection practices to better integrate with other state agencies.
"Our probation system is failing basic tests of fairness. We are a national outlier, and we see different probation terms for the same crime in different parts of the state,” Rep. Long said. “There are still Minnesotans who receive 20, 30, or 40 year probation terms. These types of sentences are not rehabilitative, and in fact can make it harder for individuals to reintegrate. It's time we modernize and standardize our probation system."
Another bill, authored by Rep. Marion O’Neill (R – Maple Lake), lead minority member of the House Corrections Division, HF 1028, would allow for a treatment alternative instead of incarceration for non-violent drug-related probation violations.
"Having served on the Public Safety Committee now for seven years, I am very aware that approximately 85 percent of those in the criminal justice system have a chemical dependency,” Rep. O’Neill said. “Diving deeper into the numbers in 2017, the DOC informed the Legislature that of the total admissions in the prior year, 60 percent were for technical violations and not because of a new crime committed. From that data, the Alternatives to Incarceration Program was passed into law as a pilot program in Anoka County. Non-violent drug offenders were offered treatment instead of returning to prison for their technical violations. While the program is still in the pilot phase, the preliminary results are impressive with a drop in prison admissions down 60 percent.
“My bill would expand the pilot and double the funding. I look forward to partnering with my colleagues across the aisle to further reform probation, parole and conditional release to address the root of the underlying criminality, addiction."
These community-centered changes are part of a broader effort to reduce the prison population by reducing recidivism due to probation revocations. This legislative session, the Public Safety Division will, when appropriate, seek to utilize programming, rehabilitation, treatment and other restorative efforts as an alternative to mass incarceration. The panel will also review laws to see which criminal penalties are working and which are perhaps causing more harm to communities than helping them.
Others attending the press conference launching the effort included: Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter; Rep. Jack Considine (DFL – Mankato), Chair of the House Corrections Division; Leslie Redmond of the Minneapolis NAACP; and Brian Kopperud, Dakota County Community Corrections Director.