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Minnesota's probation system overloaded
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Francisco Chapa is one of the "Most Wanted Fugitives" listed on the Department of Corrections' Web site. His last known address was Blue Earth, Minnesota. Chapa is listed as a Level 3 sex offender. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections)
Minnesota is putting more criminals on probation. Probation officers are struggling to keep up with their growing workload. Recent budget cuts are adding to the challenge. Some probation officers say public safety is affected when they can't implement the best tools available to keep criminals from committing new crimes.

Moorhead, Minn. — About 140,000 convicted criminals are currently under some kind of supervision in Minnesota. The offenses range from felonies to misdemeanors, sexual assault to drunk driving and disorderly conduct. Some have spent time in prison, most have not.

Probation officer Marcie Green works with adult felons in the Department of Corrections' Moorhead office. Green has seen an increase in the number of repeat offenders.

"Going back 10 years, pretty much most of our cases would have one offense, one file," says Green. "Now it's not uncommon at all to have multiple offenses, or they have two or three felony files."

Caseloads are steadily increasing in the Moorhead office, according to supervisor Greg Potvin.

"Our caseload has been increasing about 5 percent a year for the last three or four years," says Potvin. "We know best practices calls for focusing on the highest-risk offenders, so that's what we try to do."

Caseloads vary around the state, but the average adult felon probation officer works with about 100 offenders. The recommended maximum caseload is 60.

When you see the budget cuts cutting training dollars to make our staff more effective, that's a problem. When you take out probation officers, so that caseload goes up and they have less time to work with the medium and high-risk offender, that's a problem.
- Mark Carey, American Probation and Parole Association

More criminals are spending more time on probation. Officials say that's not because of an increase in crime, but because the state Legislature has increased the penalties for many crimes, including extending the length of time criminals spend on probation.

Greg Potvin says despite the caseload, probation officers are not allowed to work overtime.

"Even as a supervisor, I've never gone home at the end of the day and not had something else I couldn't do," says Potvin. "I think it's pretty much a job you could work at 24 hours a day, and not get it all done."

Potvin thinks probation officers are doing a good job, despite the increasing workload. But he says it's a challenge to find ways to train officers on the latest advances in probation.

While caseloads are rising, state budget cuts eliminated more than 100 probation officer positions statewide last year. Budget cuts also wiped out much of the training money for probation officers.

Mark Carey is a former deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He still works for the agency, and he's also president-elect of the American Probation and Parole Association.

Carey contends budget cuts are eroding the probation infrastructure.

"When you see the budget cuts cutting training dollars to make our staff more effective, that's a problem. When you take out probation officers so that caseload goes up, and they have less time to work with the medium and high-risk offender, that's a problem," says Carey.

Budget cuts mean less information is collected and shared across the justice system, according to Carey. That means probation officers sometimes don't understand a judge's sentencing practices, and judges don't have good information on what happens to the people they sentence.

Carey recalls a conversation he had with a judge who compared sentencing an offender to golfing in the fog.

"You walk up to the tee. You put your ball on the tee and you take a couple practice swings. Then you rear back and hit that ball with all your might. And it sounds beautiful and it looks beautiful as is goes off the tee. And as it sails through the air it goes into a bank of fog. And we have no idea where that ball has landed," says Carey. "And yet we go up there, time and time again, to hit the ball the same way we did before."

Carey believes judges might be able to make better decisions if they knew what happened to criminals they sentence. He says that would require more money be spent on data collection and research.

Research is providing many promising new techniques for keeping criminals from falling back into old patterns. But those new techniques are time-consuming, and more expensive.

Most probation resources are spent on the most serious offenders, according to Carey. But that's only a small percentage of those on probation or parole. He says less serious criminals, the mid-level offenders, are slipping through the cracks.

"Some of those offenders are getting the programs they need. A large proportion of them are not," says Carey. "So in my view that's an area we need to focus our dollars on, because we can make significant reductions in recidivism. But you've got to drive caseloads down so you have time to do that."

Carey believes more probation officers on the job would allow more effective programs to be implemented. He thinks that could reduce the overall number of repeat offenders by 30 to 40 percent.

It's frustrating when the best tools aren't in the toolbox, says Melanie Currier, president of the Minnesota Association of County Probation Officers.

"You know that programs exist. You know that you either had them and now you don't, or you've never been able to have them, because of funding constraints," Currier says. "You know they're out there, and if you could get them going in your county it would make a difference. That's frustrating."

Currier believes a lack of funding for probation programs will have a long-term effect.

"When you're losing positions and caseloads are increasing, you're going to lose some of the programming and the things that go into best practices," says Currier. "Logically then, public safety may suffer and recidivism increase."

Minnesota Department of Corrections officials agree caseloads are straining the probation system, but they insist it's not a crisis.

Bill Guelker oversees the department's probation system. He believes caseloads can be managed by doing more with less.

"I don't want to blow the horn of panic, because I think given what we have we need to prioritize, we need to use it, we need to work smarter. And I think we can keep moving forward with best practice efforts," says Guelker.

Guelker says he's looking for creative ways to bring innovation to the probation system. But he says probation officers often can't try new things if they're already overwhelmed by their workload.

"We can't just let them have the same level of casework they have right now. We have to find a way to reduce that so they have time to do this. That's a huge challenge," admits Guelker. "But if they're given the right tools to make changes, we will reduce victimization in the community, which is, in my opinion, our No. 1 job."

The state plans to fund 18 new probation officers this year. They'll be assigned to supervise high-risk sex offenders. There's no money to replace the 100 positions cut last year. That means the caseload for most Minnesota probation officers will increase again this year.

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