This year, Louisiana and Oklahoma policymakers are tackling comprehensive sentencing and corrections reforms, tired of being confronted with headlines that feature their skyrocketing incarceration rates.
Minnesota legislators have never had that problem. The state has long had one of the smallest relative prison populations in the country.
So now — right now, today — is the time to get to work on this critical issue for Minnesota.
Why? Because Minnesota is at risk of losing its enviably manageable prison population.
Minnesota has one of the fastest-growing prison population rates in the country. While the imprisonment rate nationally decreased more than seven percent between 2005 and 2015, Minnesota’s increased by 8 percent, even while crime was cut by 30 percent.
One of the main drivers of this growth has been probation violations. Between 2001 and 2014, 16 percent of those placed on probation were remanded to prison for a violation, representing more than 24,000 admissions statewide. In 2014, a quarter of the male prison population was behind bars due to a probation revocation.
Compared with other states, Minnesota is not leveraging its community supervision resources as effectively as possible. Long probation terms increase the state’s caseloads and stretch supervision resources thin. By law, a probation term can be as long as the prison term that might otherwise have been imposed. In other words, anywhere from four to 40 years. On average, Minnesota offenders spend about 66 months on probation.
As a result, Minnesota has the fifth-largest probation population, per capita, in the country, as noted in an April 3 Star Tribune analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
With so many on probation for longer than necessary, probation officers are unable to target their time and programming to higher-need offenders, and mistakes quickly start piling up to revocations. Left unchecked, this misuse of probation supervision will accelerate Minnesota’s prison population growth, further draining resources and taxpayers.
Fortunately, there is a clear path to avoiding this troubling trend. Other states have made wise use of probation supervision resources, targeting higher-risk offenders with more interventions, while incentivizing lower-level offenders to remain compliant and successfully terminate their supervision.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Blaine, and Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, have authored legislation to start Minnesota down this proven path. SF 1604 and HF1688 will update statutory probation terms for certain offenses and set them right around the current average: five years. Furthermore, this legislation will give courts and probation officers discretion to provide an early discharge for certain offenses. This will apply when offenders have shown they likely no longer pose a risk of reoffending.
Probation officers will be able to more effectively manage their caseloads, refocusing efforts and resources on those needing more intensive supervision. Probation violations will be managed swiftly and certainly, hopefully avoiding more of those costly revocations.
These bills have our support, as well as the support of the Public Defender’s office, the Minnesota Association of Community Corrections Act Counties, counties throughout the state, probation officers, and the governor’s office. And the voters are on the side of smarter criminal justice, too: A poll out last year from the U.S. Justice Action Network showed that 91 percent of Minnesotans agree that prisons cost taxpayers a lot of money and we should be focused on putting away more of the truly dangerous criminals.
The last forecast made for Minnesota’s prison population projected growth of more than 1,100 offenders during the next 10 years, which would cost millions in prison construction. We must start the work now to avoid this. Otherwise, in a few decades, Minnesota lawmakers might be calling colleagues in Louisiana and Oklahoma to learn how they dealt with chart-topping incarceration rates.
Jenna Moll is deputy director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. Patrick Purtill is director of legislative affairs of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.