The Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) says it will use a recently awarded grant to bolster efforts to make community supervision of offenders less punitive and more supportive.
The center, a nonpartisan nonprofit focusing on improving Minnesota’s criminal justice system, recently announced it had secured a $282,000 renewable grant from Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization that funds efforts in such areas as health, higher education, and public finance, stating that it focuses on “correcting systemic failures through evidence-based solutions.”
In the area of justice reform, Arnold Ventures has been invested in determining why community supervision violations have evolved into one of the top reasons people are sent to prisons. Nationally, hundreds of thousands of people are incarcerated each year because they violated the terms of their probation or supervised release. Minnesota had the fifth-highest rate of people on supervision in 2019.
The MNJRC says that, in Minnesota, approximately one in four people currently in prison are there because of a supervision violation, which it says is costly and counterproductive. Over 60% of prison admissions are a result of supervision failures. According to an October 2022 report titled, “Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Minnesota: Improving Supervision Investments and Outcomes,” these imprisonments costs taxpayers more than $77 million each year.
Will Cooley, Project Lead at MNJRC, says these individuals, who are imprisoned for 60 to 90 days, “do not receive any rehabilitation services and then are churned back into the world,” unsurprisingly leading to high recidivism rates.
Technical violations are failures to fulfill a condition of probation ordered by a judge. One example might be not checking in with a parole officer. Essentially, there is no new crime. However, the individual out on probation could serve additional time, stemming from the same offense, for a technical violation.
“Minnesotans deserve a justice system that is fair, equitable, holds people accountable and produces restorative outcomes. Through our partnership with Arnold Ventures, the MNJRC will work to ensure that community supervision is a pathway to success,” declared Justin Terrell, executive director of MNJRC.
The grant grew out of criminal justice reform initiatives already occurring in Minnesota, according to Cooley, who said that Arnold Ventures staffers noticed a grassroots movement in Minnesota that was pushing to end incarceration for technical violations of community supervision. That movement, Cooley said, reflects the needs and desires of Minnesotans on community supervision, as well as their families. “They put the issue of reducing revocations and incentivizing successful completion of supervision at the top of our agenda,” Cooley said.
Ramsey County has reconsidered probation revocations in certain circumstances. It is participating in the Reducing Revocations Challenge, another initiative of Arnold Ventures.
The hope is to expand this model and make it the norm. “Minnesota needs community supervision systems that prioritize success instead of ensnaring failure,” Cooley said.
As far as using the grant money is concerned, Cooley says that the MNJRC’s first task is to conduct community-centered research, reaching out to people affected by current practices and listening to their experiences.
“We know there are a lot of great ideas to improve probation and supervised release percolating up from people on supervision, community service providers, supervision agents, and others,” Cooley said. Leading their outreach is MNJRC’s community engagement manager, Zeke Caligiuri, who is out on supervised release.
Cooley highlights innovations arising from Minnesota stakeholders, asking, “Can we expand work-release so people have employment when they exit prison? Can we provide more gate money for prison releases so they can find housing immediately? Can we lower agent caseloads for more individualized attention to clients? How can we eliminate fines and fees that serve as barriers to positive outcomes?”
The MNJRC’s vision of elevated community safety rests on four main pillars. First, MNJRC opposes the use of incarceration for technical violations. Second, the organization suggests that earned time credits should be provided for supervised release abatement, as well as transforming probation from term-based to task-based. Third, it emphasizes the use of community resources for substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and mental health treatment in place of and before incarceration. Finally, MNJRC promotes focused deterrence strategies in community supervision — specifically, not supervising people who have been compliant for years.
“We plan to continue our efforts to ensure that community supervision in Minnesota improves public safety, prevents crime, promotes better outcomes for people on probation and supervised release, affirmatively addresses racial disparities, and decreases the financial and societal costs associated with revocations,” Cooley said.