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‘Revocation pathway’ to prison

Ramsey County, Robina Institute work to counter incarceration rate

Understanding why Ramsey County has a high number of probation revocations and finding ways to reduce that total are among the goals of a multiyear effort involving corrections and court officials, researchers and community members.

The goals of the Reducing Revocations Challenge include improving outcomes for probationers while protecting public safety.

Ramsey County revoked more probation cases than Hennepin County — 4,174 to 3,602 — and at nearly double the rate of its larger neighbor — 20.5% to 11.6% — from 2002 to 2016, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. When a probationary sentence gets revoked, the person serves part or most of their sentence behind bars, contributing to what the challenge project terms as a “pathway” to jail and prison admissions.

That finding prompted Ramsey County Community Corrections officials, who supervise people on probation in the county, to partner with the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice to study the drivers of probation revocations and identify ways to reduce revocations when appropriate. They are doing so as a participant in the Reducing Revocations Challenge, a national initiative of Arnold Ventures and the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance.

The project’s recommendations and possible ways to carry out those recommendations were the subject of “Disrupting the Probation to Incarceration Pathway: Translating Research into Action,” a webinar that the Robina Institute, a nonpartisan research institute at the University of Minnesota Law School, hosted Wednesday, Dec. 7.

A “Disrupting the Revocation Pathway” study found that the odds of felony probation revocations were greater for Blacks and Native Americans than whites, according to a two-year analysis of the 3,005 people who began probation in Ramsey County in 2016. More than 40% of those people had one or more probation violations.

Blacks and Native Americans in Ramsey County also had greater odds of getting a probation violation compared to whites. But their odds of revocation were lower, the two-year analysis found. That suggests, the study said, that “the courts may be correcting for the disproportionally high rate at which people who are Black and Native American receive violations.”

Kelly Lyn Mitchell, the Robina Institute’s executive director, said during the webinar that she wanted to “keep that thought [about disparities] at the forefront and try to ensure racial and ethnic equity as we develop and implement changes to practices and policies.”

Statewide issue — and costs

While focused on Ramsey County, the study’s findings and recommendations may have statewide implications. Minnesota had the fifth-highest rate of people on supervision in 2019, according to the Council of State Governments (CSG). Of nearly 122,000 people under correctional control then, 87% were on probation or supervised release

More than 60% of prison admissions in Minnesota in 2019 resulted from revocations of supervised release and probation, according to a CSG estimate cited by the Robina Institute. On most days, about 25% of the standing prison population was admitted for a supervision violation, costing the state more than $77 million a year, according to the CSG report.

The rate of Black adults on felony probation in Minnesota in 2019 was nearly five times that of white adults, the CSG report stated. The rate for Native Americans was more than nine times greater than for whites. Native Americans in Minnesota have their probation revoked at the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group.

Potential solutions

The advisory committee for the Reducing Revocations Challenge includes people from throughout the criminal justice system, treatment providers and community members, Mitchell said.

Committee members, Mitchell said, are working on three “lanes” to increase the success of people on probation: identify cases where people don’t need to be on supervision or where long probation sentences could be shorter; equitably amplify social, health and welfare services and reduce technical violations, to help people meet basic needs; promote behavioral change and prevent reoffending by providing appropriate correctional intervention.

In the two-year study of probation in Ramsey County, new crimes, failure to maintain contact with probation officers, noncompliance with programming or treatment and substance use or positive or missed drug tests accounted for 88% of first probation violations and 90% of revocations.

While race appeared to have a strong association with violations and revocations for people who are Black and Native American, the data provided no further insight into why these differences occurred, according to the executive summary of the Reducing Revocations Challenge report.

Some people interviewed for the report said probation officers and people on probation may have difficulty connecting because of differences in race and culture and because “the demographics of probation officers are not reflective of the communities in which they work.” The report recommended that Ramsey County Community Corrections continue efforts to recruit and retain probation officers who are Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American.

Advisory committee members called for Ramsey County Community Corrections to consider creating community navigator positions, with people formerly or currently on probation serving as mentors with a goal of offering peer-to-peer support in navigating a probation sentence.

“We’re just trying to figure out, is there a way that we can create a position where we could bring in somebody who’s had lived experience with the system or who can connect better with people on probation who are who are struggling to get through to get through their sentence,” Mitchell said in an interview. One goal is for community members to have “a big say” in developing the navigator role.

Chris Mba, a racial and health equity planner for Ramsey County Community Corrections, said in a panel discussion during the webinar that building trust with community members has been a challenge. But community members who attended a recent “consensus workshop” concerning the navigator position were excited to share their thoughts on the skills and lived experiences they would like to see in someone serving in that role.

Lyle Iron Moccasin, an outreach/reentry coordinator for American Indian OIC and its Takoda Institute, said during the discussion that the Reducing Revocations Challenge is one way to “reduce the mistrust that goes on between our communities.” Improving communication with community leaders would help address that and hiring community members as navigators would help improve diversity in the corrections system.


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