States are spending $2.8 billion a year to incarcerate people who violated parole or probation, often because of technical violations such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with their probation officer.
According to a Council of State Governments Justice Center study, 31% of Minnesota’s prison population is from those who violated probation. And while the state ranks 47th when it comes to prison time, it ranks fifth in the percentage of residents who are on probation.
And in nearly half the states in the nation, 50% or more of the prison population is from probation violators.
While Democrats in the Minnesota House proposed reforms that would have capped probation sentences at five years and reduced the number of offenders sent back to prison, the legislation didn’t make it into the final bill that was hammered out by GOP and DFL negotiators.
There are times when people should be incarcerated for probation violations, such as committing an assault, stalking a victim or conduct that puts the public at clear risk.
Reform advocates say part of the problem is probation or parole periods that are too long. As time goes by the chances for someone to trip up, even in a relatively minor manner, increases and can land them back in prison.
The high rates of those on probation returning to prison is also heightened by the lack of mental health and addiction counseling available to them. That lack of service for the general population also increases the overall incarceration rate as jails and prisons increasingly become holding places for people who should have been getting treatment before they committed an offense.
In a related note, states should be looking at the way they apply probation to juvenile offenders. Congress in 2018 passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which gives states more leeway and incentive to reform the youth probation system.
The latest findings on adolescent development show it’s common for teenagers to make mistakes and that with time most adolescents will grow out of their risky behavior naturally.
But most states don’t take such considerations into account, using probation too frequently rather than reserving it for those juvenile offenders who need it and can benefit from it.
Society isn’t well served by a probation system that sets up too many adults for failure or is used unnecessarily on some juvenile offenders. The Legislature needs to revisit the issue in the next session.