Tevlin: Minneapolis probation officer protects people – from themselves

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2014 - 10:19 PM

It doesn’t take long inside Ron Cunningham’s small office to recognize he deals with an interesting clientele.

On one wall, there is a thank-you card from a client with a dog and flowers on the front that calls him “a good probation officer and a great person.” Another client, supposedly a former BBC reporter they call “the genius,” gave him a book that the man wrote, one of 14.

Then there was the guy who urinated in his office.

“I get people at all levels of intoxication,” Cunningham explained. “Sometimes it’s just triage.”

Take 100 of downtown’s most active petty offenders, the ones who get drunk and unruly, relieve themselves in public or generally make life unpleasant for others, and you have Cunningham’s people.

As the “Downtown 100” probation officer, Cunningham oversees a group of people who have been identified as the core city’s troublemakers. They are not the gangbangers or hardened criminals, but rather people with addictions and mental illness, most of them homeless, who are constantly in trouble with the law.

“They are more of a danger to themselves than to others,” Cunningham said.

In a unique program started in 2009, the city, county, Police Department and city attorney’s office have targeted this group to try to lower the number of contacts with law enforcement, not only to make life better for the offenders and pedestrians, but also to save money.

They also brought in social service organizations, such as St. Stephen’s and the Salvation Army, to try to steer the individuals into housing or treatment.

The project has been a success, though Cunningham is the first to tell you that the word “success” is relative.

According to a report from the city attorney’s office, since 2009 arrests of the “targeted” individuals have steadily decreased most years. Arrests of those people in the downtown area dropped from 1,733 to 514, and citywide from 2,268 to 841.

When one of his clients gets arrested, Cunningham will visit him in jail. It might just be for spitting on the sidewalk, but Cunningham discovers they usually have a half-dozen offenses, pleaded down to the least egregious. He bargains with the offenders for reduced time.

Go to treatment. Stay out of a specific downtown area, known to offenders as “the map.” Don’t offend for nine months.

“Some say, ‘It’s easier to do my 60 days in the workhouse than stay out of trouble and downtown,’ ” he said.

Others voluntarily come into his office because they’ve learned to trust him, and say “It’s time for a change.”

Cunningham said that such a change may last 17 months, as it has for one current client. Another was arrested within two hours of getting out of jail.

“Ron has done a great job and has had to create his own playbook,” said city attorney Susan Segal. “The genesis of the program was a desire to come up with a more effective result in dealing with chronic livability crime offenders.”

A county study calculated the costs of those 100 people to be millions of dollars, “all with no real improvement in outcomes beside short stabilization and a revolving door,” Segal said.

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