In Minnesota, nearly 100,000 people are under probation—a form of supervised release that often includes strict daily check-ins with supervising officers. In fact, Minnesota has one of the highest probation rates in the country, leaving some people under supervised probation for 10, even 20 years. According to a recent Star Tribune story, Minnesota is tied with Alabama at the 14th-highest rate per 100,000 residents who are under some form of correctional control, including prison, jail, probation, and supervised release.
What does that mean for people who have served their time? It often means that they’re sent back to prison for “technical violations,” things that include missing meetings, showing up late, or failing drug tests. It means that people have long periods of supervised release that often lead to failure—which is why 64 percent of Minnesota’s prison population incarcerated in 2016 was there not for a new crime, but for violating conditions of probation.
“The criteria for successfully completing probation can be very subjective and in being so, it essentially just prolongs incarceration,” says Dr. Thomas Adams, CEO and President of Better Futures Minnesota. “Accountability is important. But it doesn’t mean we continue to employ a strategy that has proven to be costly and ineffective.”
Additional time for small infractions
At Better Futures Minnesota, the revolving door of incarceration plays out in real-time, where men who are committed to the work required at Better Futures Minnesota are sent back to jail or prison for small technical violations.
Anthony* was becoming a mentor of sorts at Better Futures Minnesota. He was dedicated—showing up every day and devoting himself to the emotional, physical, and mental work he needed and wanted to do to grow and succeed. He was living at the guest house, and had recently surprised the other men with a home-cooked fish dinner. He had just completed Phase 1 of Better Futures, and was about to start the 16-week job-training program.
Anthony was under ISR (intensive supervised release), which meant he was required to send his supervising officer his weekly schedule, which is used to check-in on people under probation at anytime. A few Sundays ago, Anthony left the guest house 20 minutes early for church. When his supervising officer showed up to check in, he wasn’t there, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Anthony was scared to turn himself in to authorities. When he did, the supervising officer suggested he go back to prison for 120 days for not being where he said he would be. Anthony is now serving an additional four months.
At the “discretion” of agents
Anthony’s experience isn’t isolated. While the men at Better Futures Minnesota have low recidivism rates (more than 90 percent remain in the community, as compared to 60 percent on average for same population in Hennepin County), 12 percent still have their sentencing restructured due to technical violations. What’s more, there are huge areas for discretion when applying sentencing guidelines for technical violations—a discrepancy that leads to inconsistent sentencing and outcomes.
For the men who are sent back to prison for not committing a new crime, that can alter his path for a lifetime.
“We know that the more time someone spends incarcerated, the greater their chance is for committing another crime,” says Adams, whose work at Better Futures is centered on a coordinated response, trauma-informed, integrated-care model. In 2016, 146 men received outreach services—including housing, health services, and job placement—through Better Futures Minnesota’s model.
“Sending them back to prison for these technical violations, when they are working so hard, doesn’t make sense. It damages his self-esteem, further hardening his outlook. We need to look at new ways that help keep men productive members in the community while ensuring community safety. It is not an either/or scenario, it’s a both/and solution.”