American Indians struggle in Minn. probation system

Steven Rock
Steven Rock, 26, of Minneapolis failed his first stint on probation and was sent to prison.
MPR Photo/Rupa Shenoy

Steven Rock says there's nothing his first probation officer could have done. He wasn't going to listen.

"She was never hard or anything; she just wanted me to succeed, but I was too hardheaded," Rock said.

Both of Rock's parents grew up on the White Earth reservation. They moved to Minneapolis and Rock grew up on the city's south side.

"Then I see my friends, my cousins, my family members selling narcotics. So I said, 'Man, I'm going to get into that,'" Rock said.

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By the age of twenty, Rock was selling drugs and getting into drunken fights. In 2004, he was convicted of criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to probation.

His probation officer put him in a halfway house that doubled as a rehabilitation program for alcoholics. Rock broke curfew. He got drunk. He missed therapy. After three violations, his probation officer sent him to prison.

New numbers show American Indians continue to fare poorly in Minnesota's probation system. About 12,000 people are sentenced to felony probation in Minnesota every year. Six percent are American Indian.

While Indian offenders make up a relatively small part of the Minnesota judicial system, one in five American Indians fail probation and are sent to prison.


It's a story that John Poupart knows well.

"I've lived through all this stuff," he said. "I was a drunk. I was an alcoholic."

Poupart is founder and president of the American Indian Policy Center, and a former ombudsman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He said probation officers underestimate the distrust many Indians have for the justice system or the role culture plays in their lives.

"There's a gap between probation officers and American Indian people," he said. "Probation officers in general lack the knowledge, the cultural knowledge, of Indians and their communities."

It can be as simple as understanding that, for example, in many Indian traditions, people don't look elders in the eye out of respect.

Dawn Paro, with the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis, said people working with Indian probationers have to know enough to tell them employers want eye contact during a job interview.

But Paro knows that American Indian probationers won't respond well if they feel they're being judged on stereotypes.

"That's what I hear a lot: 'These people intimidate me,'" she said. "How's that going to help them if they're constantly told they're no good?"

American Indian communities have created culturally sensitive programs to work with offenders. In traditional justice circles, elders decide how a criminal will pay their debt to the community and victims.

"They work really well," Paro said. "Ideally if we could get funding for that it would be helpful."

Probation officers in Mille Lacs County have participated in those circles. County Probations Chief Warren Liepitz said he sends most American Indian probationers to programs run by the local tribe.

"Chemical dependency programs that are staffed by Native American workers -- that makes sometimes an inroad that isn't going to happen somewhere else," Liepitz said.


The numbers don't necessarily bear that out. One-third of American Indian probationers in Mille Lacs county had their probations revoked between 2001 and 2008 -- the most recent data available -- compared to one-fifth in the metro area.

But Steven Rock maintains culture has made the difference in his case. While in Lino Lakes prison, an older Ojibwe inmate taught him some of his language and traditions.

Rock is now 26 and has been out of prison for nearly a year.

"I've still got a lot to learn," he said.

Rock said he's getting along with his current probation officer. He said Indian traditions have given him an identity and pride that he believes will keep him from reoffending.

"It's kind of lonely...not having a family member to talk to, but I've got to understand that they've got to learn on their own," he said.

Rock said American Indians have to learn to work with the justice system even if it doesn't adapt to their culture.

"Life's a struggle and you have to learn the difficulties of it."