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Under watch, ex-offenders reenter prison's revolving door

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Paul Schnell speaks with a group of formerly incarcerated men.
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell speaks with a group of formerly incarcerated men at the Power of People Leadership Institute in Minneapolis on March 12, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

More than a third of people who have been incarcerated in Minnesota prisons will be locked up again within three years of their release — but not for committing new crimes. 

They're sent back for what's called a "technical violation" of their probation or supervised release, such as missing an appointment with their probation officer or flouting curfew. The rate at which they're entering prison's revolving door has concerned advocates and probation officers alike.

Philip Holmes has had three technical violations. While on supervised release for theft convictions, he missed five appointments with his Stearns County probation officer. In one instance, he even walked out of a meeting. Holmes said he didn't receive information about most of his meetings because he lost his house in a fire.  

He says after he went back to jail, the life he worked hard to rebuild on the outside began to slip away.  

"If you are locked up for a couple of weeks, what happens is that you lose your job, you can't afford to pay your rent, you lose your place and then you have to start from scratch," Holmes said. "That's happened to me three times."  

Now Holmes volunteers for the Power of People Leadership Institute, a Minneapolis group that helps individuals during incarceration and after their release. They're trying to make a case that locking up people who haven't committed new crimes isn't a long-term solution.  

The group is pushing for an independent impartial review body that would look at cases and weigh if a technical violation is justified, or if ex-offender's behavior poses a risk to public safety.  

Paul Schnell stands in a circle with formerly incarcerated men/
Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell stands in a circle with formerly incarcerated men at the end of a meeting at the Power of People Leadership Institute on March 12, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The Power of People Leadership Institute hopes that probation will rely more on electronic ankle bracelets, GPS in phones and drug treatment programs to track offenders. Advocates say these measures will also keep former inmates in the community and in jobs so they can reintegrate into society.  

They've gotten the ear of the new Department of Corrections commissioner, Paul Schnell, who met with the group earlier this year. Schnell agrees the issue deserves further study. 

"We're absolutely committed to looking at how we manage technical violations in Minnesota," Schnell said. "It is important how we address this."  

There is a racial imbalance as to who is on probation or parole in this country. Black adults are three and a half times as likely as whites to be under community supervision, according to a Pew study.  

Other research shows that oversupervising people who present a low risk of rearrest actually makes them more likely to get rearrested. Community supervision is often seen as a lenient punishment or a "soft touch" for criminals who'd otherwise be incarcerated, but critics say the system is overloaded and doesn't do a good job of keeping people out of prison.

Ex-offenders may have spot checks in their homes at any time day or night, undergo random drug tests and be expected to abide by rigid curfews. But if people are oversupervised, it can affect their jobs and morale. 

Shawn Trusten, a Ramsey County probation officer, believes that oversupervision can be detrimental to his clients. He said it can destroy confidence, jeopardize jobs and sends people back to a mindset of reoffending.  

"We're increasing the likelihood they will commit an offense and have further victims," Trusten said. "That's not to say there's not a time and place for incarceration. We've definitely swung in the other direction where we lock people up for nonviolent offenses long term."

Ramsey County probation officers are looking at a new model called desistance theory to assess clients. This model looks at what stops people from reoffending.  

"It's a novel concept," he said. "As probation officers, we concentrate on all the reasons why people get into crime, whether it's poverty, poor schools and dysfunctional families. But how do you get people off probation? Desistance theory focus is to push clients into positive relationships as they reintegrate into society."  

But Bobbi Holtberg, executive director of Minnesota Alliance on Crime, is wary of any changes to probation. She says if rules on technical violations are softened, it could put victims of domestic violence at risk. Holtberg questions: If an abuser violates a no-contact order, would it still be taken seriously?  

Holtberg cautions that assessment tools used by probation officers can't guarantee safety for the community.  

"There's no foolproof tool that is going to say absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, this person isn't going to reoffend," she said.