A familiar argument broke out at the Minnesota Legislature recently.
The committee on public safety was debating a bill that would make it a felony to tamper with a police car, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Rep. Raymond Dehn, a DFLer, commented on the number of similar bills the committee had been hearing, turning lower charges into more serious ones likely to feed the prison population.
If the goal is simply to lock more people up, Dehn said, “I just question why we call this a public safety committee.”
His Republican colleague, Rep. Tony Cornish, swiftly chimed in that he doesn’t mind sending more people to prison if they deserve it. Besides, said Cornish, “we’re still very near the bottom on incarceration per capita in Minnesota."
This is a common refrain in discussions about prison policy. And Cornish is right: Minnesota’s incarceration rate is one of the lowest in the United States.
But that’s not the whole story. Minnesota also claims one of the highest rates of people on probation in the country. One reason this matters is that people on probation or supervised release -- Minnesota’s version of parole -- frequently do end up in prison for “technical violations,” such as missing meetings with a supervision officer or failing drug tests. Last year, two-thirds of the state's prison admissions were there because of technical violations.
Critics like Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, think it's time for that to change. Last week, O’Neill brought advocates in to testify on a proposal in the House that would mandate supervision officers to look for alternatives to prison when non-violent drug offenders commit technical violations.
“Our system is broken,” said Gina Evans, a recovered addict who now helps others as outreach director for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge rehabilitation programs.
Evans told legislators that she went to prison several times for short stints not even long enough to complete a drug treatment program, which only delayed her sobriety. “I just believe so strongly that had a bill like this been in place during that time that I would have gotten out of that system five, maybe 10, years sooner," she said.
In light of this renewed effort, we're taking a deep dive into the data behind supervision and why some say change is long overdue.
The flip side of prison
At year-end 2015, the state held the fifth-lowest incarceration rate in the nation, down from the No. 2 spot a few years ago, according to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
It’s worth noting here that Minnesota is still among the fastest-rising prison populations in the nation, and the need for beds has long outpaced resources.
While Minnesota ranks low, its prisons are still overcrowded, meaning hundreds of state inmates are being warehoused in county jails ill-equipped to deal with them. Some lawmakers believe the answer to overpopulation lies in the state buying or leasing a private prison in Swift County -- which you can read about here and here.
The probation rates tell a very different story than incarceration rates. As of the end of 2015, nearly 100,00 people in the state were under probation – the fifth-highest rate in the nation, according to BJS data.
If we factor in everyone under correctional control -- combining prison, jail, probation and supervised release -- Minnesota ranks 14th-highest in the country, tied with Alabama.
'A state of limbo'
Amy Chavez is among those who believe the community supervision system is working in Minnesota.
Chavez has worked in probation for 20 years, currently with Chisago County, and is on the exeuctive board of the Minnesota Association of County Probation Officers. She said benefits of probation include allowing offenders to serve out their sentences while still holding down a job, going to school and keeping family ties. In some cases, being able to work means paying restitution to victims.
She acknowleges that some do end up back in prison for technical violations, but she argues it's often more complicated than an offender simply making a small mistake.
“Probation officers aren’t just trying to catch people and throw them in jail -- that’s not our goal," she said. "We’re trying to prevent another offense or another victim.”
And supervision officers often do what they can to get the offender on track without filing an official violation report, said DOC Deputy Commissioner Ron Solheid.
DOC data show the number of people on probation has dropped over the past decade, especially for low-level offenses, which Solheid attributes to a strategy of shifting focusing to more severe offenders.
"We’re constantly looking at community supervision," said Solheid. "We’re constantly looking at, is it effective? Is it promoting public safety? You know, there’s a balancing act that takes place there.”
But probation or parole aren't merely lighter versions of prison, said Michelle Phelps, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, who has studied this issue locally and nationally.
The conditions often become a recipe for failure, she said. These can include fees and frequent trips to meet a supervision officer, both difficult for low-income offenders who make up a large portion of those in the criminal justice system. They may be required to get a job, even though being on supervision or having a felony record can make it difficult to get one. Some find difficulty retaining custody of children. There are also physical restrictions, such as not being able to leave the county or being tied to an evening curfew, or regular drug and alcohol tests.
“I think it’s a mistake to think about supervision as simply this warmer, softer version," said Phelps. "It’s this extended period of control and ambiguity where you're jumping through a number of hoops.”
And as supervision officers oversee more and more people, the focus becomes less about support and treatment and more about simply punitive surveillance, or a “net widener,” to the system, she said.
“People experience this as a state of limbo, where they’re in the community but they’re not free,” she said.
Among supervision officers, there’s also debate on whether the conditions are too burdensome.
Last fall, the Robina Institue published a report about the effects of probation that included anonymous interviews with probation officers. Some took cynical views of their jobs. Some said the conditions usually do fit the crime, and as long as clients stay clean and check in, they’ll be fine. Others complained that probation was all about doing things that sound good, but don't actually address the problem that brought the person into the system. "We could concentrate on...a couple areas and that would probably be a better way to reduce the chance for recidivism,” one anonymous probation officer said in the report.
The Robina study also found that, from 2010 to 2014, the average sentence length was five and a half years in Minnesota. A high number of conditions combined with long periods of time in supervision often lead to failure, and failure can mean prison time.
Which brings us back to O'Neill's bill. In 2016, nearly 5,000 people went to prison in Minnesota for violating their probation or supervised release -- 64 percent of the state’s total prison admissions that year.
Whether or not a violator goes to prison often comes down to the discretion of the supervising officer. O’Neill’s bill would give concrete direction to divert people away from prison. For example, if someone failed a drug test, he or she may be ordered to inpatient treatment, instead of going to prison.
As the system is set up now, said Phelps, it becomes a game of whether a probation officer decides to file a violation that could put the person in prison. "I think there’s a really strong argument for rethinking those policies and making sure we’re only holding people accountable for the kinds of conditions that we really think matter.”