Budget cuts hurt probation efforts

Jail bars
Offenders are often put on probation for a period of time after they are released from jail. In Minnesota, there were nearly 141,000 people on probation in 2008. Many county governments are cutting funding for probation agencies due to budget problems.
Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images

Probation officers stand between people who have committed crimes and the public. Most Minnesota counties have protected their ranks through rounds of budget cuts.

But many cash-strapped local governments couldn't avoid dipping into funds for probation departments during December budget deliberations.

Some counties are trying to save money by leaving officer positions unfilled, or by cutting positions. The remaining officers have more people to supervise, and many say that endangers their ability to ensure public safety.

"It gets frustrating. You get into this business because you want to help people. You want to help people change their lives," said Patrick Guernsey, who has been a Hennepin County probation officer for 17 years. "And what's going to end up happening is people are going to fail."

Guernsey is vice president of AFSCME Local 552, the union that represents Hennepin County probation officers. The union fought back when Tom Merkel, Hennepin County director of community corrections and rehabilitation, recommended eliminating 16 probation positions.

Merkel said he had to make the recommendation in order to meet budget targets. County commissioners rejected the plan last month in a unanimous vote. But Merkel doesn't know what to expect in the coming year.

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A Minneapolis half-way house
Residents of this Minneapolis halfway house live here while on probation or parole after being released from jail or prison.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

"I think more than one board member made it pretty clear that this restoration of these positions wasn't necessarily a guarantee that these positions would survive into the 2011 budget, or even through 2010, as the economy continues to struggle," he said.

So Merkel has taken several dramatic steps to streamline and economize. He recently won court approval to drop 5,000 offenders from the probation rolls.

Those offenders committed non-violent offenses and have completed requirements imposed by judges -- such as classes or community service. But they're still within their court-imposed probation period.

"What we've realized is probation isn't about time. It's about meeting conditions like taking a class, paying restitution," Merkel said. "It didn't make sense to be on probation when you've satisfied all the conditions that have been imposed by the court."

Hennepin County, which has 36,000 people on probation and 322 probation officers, also took another look at the way it prioritized those officers' work. Now officers spend less time supervising low-level offenders that Merkel says don't reoffend often. That leaves officers with more time to concentrate on higher-risk offenders.

"It's really important that you identify risk for all offenders, and you focus your efforts on those that present the highest risk," he said.

"This isn't fluff being cut out of Ramsey County's budget. There is no more fluff left."

Some probation officers are skeptical of that approach, including Patrick Guernsey, the union vice president.

"I understand where they're coming from, but I think this is more budget-driven than practical. I think people start at lower levels of crime and work their way up," Guernsey said. "People realize that they're not going to be supervised. They're going to be a lot less careful about whether they're obeying the law or not."

In Ramsey County, officials couldn't avoid cutting probation officer positions for the first time in several years. The county will reduce the workforce by seven and a half positions through attrition and reassignment. That'll leave 120 officers.

President Sue Mauren of Teamsters Joint Council 32, which represents the Ramsey County probation officers, said they were already carrying overwhelming caseloads and working under stressful conditions. She said the cuts will only exacerbate the situation -- but she doesn't blame the county.

"This isn't fluff being cut out of Ramsey County's budget. There is no more fluff left in Ramsey County," Mauren said. "The cuts that are taking place now are going to mean real pain for real people. It's going to mean there is going to be less supervision of people who are on probation or should be on probation, and that is a direct threat to our communities."

Counties throughout the state are in a similar position, according to John Klavins, president of the Minnesota Association of County Probation Officers and Carver County court services director. Statewide there were nearly 141,000 people on probation in 2008.

Klavins said many probation agencies are under hiring freezes, with governments unable to replace people who have left or retired. Wabasha, Brown, and Carver counties' probation services have lost support positions.

Klavins said Carver County laid off a clerical worker and assistant probation officer. Since the county's probation agency is small, those cuts amounted to nearly 10 percent of its full-time staff.

"I truly believe that our corrections, criminal justice and human services staff members are certainly trying to do the best that they can with the limited resources they have," Klavins wrote in an e-mail. But "probation staff reductions have, or will, result in reduced services for our clients, victims and the community."

Everyone involved agrees that the situation may be even worse next year, as officials expect budgets to be even tighter.