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Minnesota Legislature

Prison, probation funding concerns kick off pair of corrections hearings

Members of the House judiciary and public safety divisions meet Jan. 29 at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law for a joint informational hearing on “Race and the Law: How We Can Improve Equity in the Criminal Justice System.” Photo by Andrew VonBank

UPDATED 8:46 p.m.

Minnesota is a low-prison population state, but some lawmakers want to see if the number of inmates can be further decreased.

They also wonder if probation is a better way to work with some convicted criminals.

To help prepare a criminal-justice reform agenda for the upcoming legislative session, the House Corrections Division and House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division discussed prisons and probation at a joint hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Public safety division members then traveled to the Mitchell Hamline School of Law to join the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division. There, the House panels held an evening hearing on race and policing, and the criminal justice system.

No action was taken at either event.

The purpose of the hearings was, in part, to discuss issues of funding prisons and the probation system and talk about if current policies contribute positively or negatively, said Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), chair of the public safety division.

Additionally, members hope to see if investments in the current approach to using facilities works best, or if there are opportunities to invest in new alternatives, particularly with the probation system.

“Everything is inter-connected,” said Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls).

Probation data, potential changes

The ultimate goal of the Corrections Department, according to Commissioner Paul Schnell, is to “maximize community safety and prosperity by delivering the best transformational correctional services in the least restrictive and most cost-effective environment possible.”

Joint House Corrections & House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Division 1/28/20

Currently, Minnesota’s 11 prisons hold just under 10,000 inmates. However, Schnell noted that of the state’s admissions in Fiscal Year 2019, 57 percent were for probation or supervised release violations. The average length of stay is 10 months for probation violators; four months for supervised release violators. Each intake costs about $1,300.

Schnell said this creates a tremendous amount of churning — or turnover — and puts a lot of demand on the prison system to meet inmate needs.

“Churn is a waste of taxpayer funding,” he said, noting it hurts the ability to provide effective programming or treatment because of a short prison stay.

“All data points, economic and social, show that we need to give priority to what we know works, but churning makes it hard,” he said. “What is the effectiveness of bringing them back to prison?”

Schnell and a handful of legislators spoke of the need for a responsible public justice system, including potential community partnerships to keep people in the community. That is in the best interest of Minnesota and those we serve, he said.

A 2018 survey showed nearly 106,000 Minnesotans were on probation with another 7,010 clients on supervised release. 

“We’d like to keep institutions for people we’re scared of, not people we’re mad at,” said Travis Gransee, director of Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections.

He said county probation officers are often in the best position to provide what clients need.

However, lack of funding can be problematic in funding officers, whose jobs can be dangerous.

Terry Fawcett, president of the Minnesota Association of County Probation Officers, said a female agent in Wright County had a gun pulled on her in the past year.

State statute says “the commissioner of corrections shall annually … pay 50 percent of the costs of probation officers' salaries to all counties of not more than 200,000 population.”

That has not happened since 1996, Fawcett said, meaning funds to provide adequate services fall back on local government. For example, Fawcett said that totals almost $200,000 annually in Pine County where recent reimbursement has been just under 30 percent.

Rep. Tim Miller (R-Prinsburg) noted that many probation officers are already overworked and can’t have more cases put on their plates.

“We have to fund that,” Schnell said. “An unfunded mandate does not serve these communities.”

Gransee said supervision alone does not reduce recidivism, but interventions matter and local agents are interveners. “The funding’s got to follow that,” he said.

When it comes to prison vs. probation, Schnell doesn’t expect the size of the funding pie to change, but it needs to be seen if there’s a better way to cut the pie. “We need to see if there is a sustainable system to meet the public safety demands the state has,” he said.

Race and the law

It’s been well-documented in Minnesota and throughout the country that people of color can be on the short end when it comes to criminal justice, including when it comes to areas such as making bail or receiving as favorable of a plea deal as a white defendant.

“There are lives impacted by the system in a harmful way,” said Artika Roller, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

While nobody would argue against the statement, patience was urged to solve what Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul), chair of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division, calls generational mistrust.

Tracie Keesee, senior vice president of justice initiatives for The Center of Policing Equity, urged members to remember that policy is not the only underlying problem and to not treat it like it is. “How do we manage that with other social structure?”

“You have to manage expectations. Rushing to a solution does not get to the underlying issues,” she said. “There’s probably going to low-hanging fruit. … It’s going to take time. It really is.”

For example, she said giving an unfunded mandate to a police department isn’t going to cut it. “Well-informed work takes longer.”

Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Cambridge) said racial inequality is not just a policing problem.

“Law enforcement is just one cog in the problem,” he said, before noting that the community — including prosecutors, store owners and families — needs to work with those people carrying badges. “We need everybody to be at the table.”

Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-Mpls) countered that police need to earn community trust and not have a belief that people of color equals trouble.

When it comes to data and myriad people at the table to discuss potential solutions, Keesee offered some suggestions.

“Data is going to be the No. 1 thing that helps us understand whether or not we are actually getting at what it is we think we are,” she said. “… You also have to make sure when you have the data in front of you, you don’t keep saying the same thing over again in hopes to prove it wrong.”

Without solving for disparities, we will not achieve equity, Keesee said, adding that not talking about the issue does not mean we are racist.


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