One of the most frequently asked questions when someone hears that we work for Community Corrections/Probation is, “How can you work with people who should be in jail or prison?” The second question is “How do you not just give up on those people?”
The people who are placed on probation are our neighbors, prior classmates, people we see in grocery store or at the gas station. The people on probation are a part of our community. People who end up on probation may have made a momentary poor decision or they may be struggling with an addiction or a trauma from when they were young which is causing them to make a series of bad decisions.
Our job is to hold them accountable, but also to help them figure out how to turn things around. We do this by listening to them and helping them to identify areas in their life that they may need to make some changes. We also do this by holding them accountable when they start to slip up.
Years ago, probation was a punitive sentence and the immediate answer to any violation was always jail or prison. While that served a purpose at that time, it typically did not help folks make long lasting changes, and it was costly for taxpayers.
Probation now focuses on finding realistic changes that people can make to become productive members of our community. Sometimes that means finding employment with a living wage, completing local programming such as chemical dependency or mental health counseling. Sometimes it means having someone who can help you learn to make a budget so you can pay your bills instead of stealing; someone you can reach out to when you want to give up and return to using drugs; or someone that may put you in jail for a few days but will also come there and help you make a plan to avoid making the same mistake again.
Minnesota has one of the lowest prison incarceration populations in the nation which has saved taxpayers statewide money, but it also means that we have some of the highest rates of people on probation in the community statewide. We work with people in the community where they live and help them to find a way to make better choices and get the help that they need. If our efforts fail and we exhaust local options, jail or prison then becomes our only choice.
At some point in life, we have all come to a fork in the road and had to decide how to move forward. If we are lucky enough to not have trauma or addiction clouding our judgment, we will hopefully make the right choice. But if we make the wrong choice and end up on probation, hopefully the people overseeing our case believe that we need to be both held accountable and helped at the same time.
Nicole Kern is the director of Community Corrections in Morrison County.