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Tevlin: Minneapolis probation officer protects people – from themselves

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • 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.

The parole job sounded like the worst in the world.

“I didn’t know squat about this population, about addicts and homeless people when I started,” Cunningham said. “I live in Edina.”

The statistics are not what motivates Cunningham. “Some of these people are so helpless they need hand-holding; it’s like working with juvenile offenders sometimes. They have no familial ties, no financial support. They drink on the street and pee in the alley because that’s the only place they have.”

His biggest surprise working with them was “asking a client where he was from and he said Wayzata. They come from all over.”

“Sometimes one day is a success for these guys,” said Cunningham. “Getting a guy to treatment, even if it doesn’t hold, is a small success.”

One young client agreed to get his GED diploma in order to reduce his sentence. He studied like mad in jail, but couldn’t pass the final exam. Cunningham decided he had given his all, and offered to release him. But in a move he sees as major progress, the young man asked to stay incarcerated until he passed.

Cunningham is amazed at how such small things can hold a person back. One got a job in construction but couldn’t afford the steel-toed boots. So Cunningham brought him to the store and paid for it.

Then there’s “the genius,” the author who once said in jail, “I shouldn’t be here, I’m a genius.”

“I said, well, look at where you are,” Cunningham said.

He calls Cunningham frequently to leave the message, “Ron, I love you, man.”

“Sometimes I spend so much time cleaning up the messes they have created for themselves, that when they have the rare lucid moment, it’s interesting to engage them in a somewhat normal conversation,” Cunningham said.

“It’s a great insight into who they really are, which is certainly a lot more than just homeless, or chronic downtown offenders.”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702 Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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