The woman who runs Minnesota's prison system -- and one of the longest-serving cabinet members of the Pawlenty administration -- will leave the department in January after more than 40 years in the field.
Joan Fabian, 66, is in charge of the 9,600 Minnesota criminals in state prisons and has been the commissioner of corrections since 2003. The state's prison population is up more than a third since Fabian became one of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's first appointees.
Since that time, Pawlenty's opposition to tax increases has kept the corrections budget basically flat, although Fabian said she's had to cut tens of millions of dollars worth of programs to keep pace with the growing prison population.
"It's been really, really hard, I'd have to say," Fabian said.
And it's been made more difficult by several factors.
One was the 2003 kidnapping and slaying of North Dakota college student Dru Sjodin by a just-released prisoner living in Crookston. The incident turned the state's handling of sex offenders from a controversy to a crisis.
The result was one of the Pawlenty administration's signature public safety policy initiatives -- one the governor talks about still.
"One of the accomplishments I think is really completely revamping the way we manage sex offenders in the state," she said. "We brought in some consultants from the Department of Justice and really assessed everything we do, and we've made major changes in everything from how we do assessments to how we supervise offenders, and I feel really good about that."
Fabian said every sex offender now goes through a methodical screening before being released, and all of the most serious offenders now leave prison with a GPS tracking device and a state probation officer to watch them closely.
Fabian said it's an approach that's changed how the entire corrections system works.
Fabian started in the justice system more than four decades ago, as a family court officer -- she did investigations and made child custody recommendations in divorce cases.
After just a few years, she said she welcomed the chance to work with prison inmates. She was a probation officer and learned the trade first in Minneapolis.
"You know, we kind of worked on instinct and what would work with this offender should work with all of them," Fabian said.
However, she said that's not the case any more.
"Right now we have just a huge body of research that shows what kind of interventions work," she said. "Do good assessments, good case plans that are individualized, that follow the offender. That has been a huge, huge change in the corrections system. We've become much, much more professional."
Still, Fabian concedes not all the changes have been good.
Before joining the state, she ran Ramsey County's corrections system. She said years ago there was money for innovative offender programs even at the local level, such as prevention programs for juveniles.
But she said investments in inmates and corrections have been a very difficult sell during a series of state budget crises.
Staff demonstrated outside the Stillwater prison in October, saying that personnel levels were falling perilously behind the prison population and inmate service cuts were making convicts more dangerous.
Fabian said she shares some of those concerns.
"The real frustrating part is there are consequences for not getting funded appropriately in corrections," she said, "and that's what I've been trying to make sure the Legislature and others understand. It isn't just people losing jobs. People can lose their lives."
But Fabian will leave that debate to the next corrections commissioner.
Fabian said she plans to spend her retirement reading, traveling and spending more time with her grandchildren and her husband, Bill, who runs a dog training business in Minnesota and Texas.