[COMMUNITY VOICES] Non-criminal ‘technical violations’ are increasing Minnesota’s prison population


When it comes to incarceration rates, Minnesota stands out as one of the few states who is experiencing an increase in their prison population despite prison overcrowding and crime at a 50-year low. While there are multiple factors for this, a significant part of this increase is due to the incarceration of formerly released individuals for non-criminal “technical violations” of parole.

According to the Department of Correction in 2017 alone, 3,391 people were returned to prison, yet 88 percent – or nearly 3,000 of those admissions – were a return without a new sentence, that is, for technical violations. A technical violation is a petty violation of supervised or conditional release (colloquially known as “parole”) which are not in themselves a misdemeanor or felony. For example, people can be violated for failure to obtain or maintain housing or employment, being late for or missing an appointment, going on social media, driving a vehicle and many other non-crimes.

At any given time, the Marshall Project estimates from 6-10 percent of Minnesota’s prison population is incarcerated due to a technical violation. This means up to 10 percent of our incarcerated community is serving time for an infraction that isn’t a crime.

And there are stories behind these statistics. The experiences of many people facing technical violations have been compiled into a podcast by the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.

Consider James*, a formerly incarcerated community member. He was violated for driving a car that he bought. “The normal response is 30 days of no passes, being that I only had 33 days left of work release left, they decided just to send me back to prison instead. So I went back to prison for 33 days.” James was adjusting too well, too fast coming out of prison. He was sent to prison for driving his new car. This cost Minnesota taxpayers an estimated $3,739.94.

Nathan’s story is more tragic, “They violated me for being in the car with my co-defendant. My co-defendant is the mother of my two younger sons. They sent me to prison for 62 months for that. You know, my youngest son doesn’t know who I am. He calls another man dad, you know. It really disturbs me because it’s just so many issues … I even explained to the judge what was going on but he wouldn’t even listen to me because they already had a preconceived notion of what they was gonna do anyway over a technical violation, a technical violation. I didn’t commit no new crime. I didn’t get caught with no new gun. No new crimes. They sent me to prison for 88 months. I had to do 62 months off that sentence.”

One sit-down with the mother of his children cost Nathan nearly six years of freedom and involvement in his sons’ lives. It also cost Minnesota taxpayers an estimated $213,724.33.

Available statistics also highlight the ongoing issue of systemic racism and racial disparity in the prison system. In Hennepin County, according to Director of Community Corrections Catherine Johnson, Native American and Black individuals are three times and twice as likely, respectively, as white individuals to be sent to prison on a technical violation. This culminates in a perfect storm sending thousands of people back to prison without committing new crimes, torn from families and destroying any progress made in rebuilding their lives.

Imprisoning people for technical violations has a brutal effect on individuals and families, and also makes a heavy hit to the state budget. According to the Vera Institute, incarceration in the state of Minnesota costs $41,366 per person per year. Multiplying that by the thousands of technical violators in Minnesota each year, one wonders what would happen if those millions were spent ensuring people have access to rehabilitation, education, jobs and housing rather than continuing the cycle of mass incarceration.

And some people are no longer willing to pay that price. The Decarcerate MN Coalition is a movement within Hennepin County calling to abolish the practice of sending people back to prison on technical violations and the Intensive Supervised Release program that leads to many such violations.

The Coalition currently has two demands for Hennepin County Commissioners. First, to reduce parole officer discretion to prevent people from being sent to prison on technical violations. Second, an immediate release of all prisoners currently serving time on technical violations so they can be reunited with their families this holiday season. There is a petition with more information.

County residents spoke to the seven Hennepin County commissioners last Thursday, Nov. 15 at 1:30 pm on the 24th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. To learn more, attend the public meeting held by Decarcerate Minnesota on Saturday, Dec. 8 from 1-3 pm at Shiloh Temple, 1201 W Broadway Ave, Minneapolis, or email decarceratemn@gmail.com. There will also be another action at the County on Tuesday Dec. 11, at 1pm.

Decarcerate MN deems the practice of sending people who haven’t committed a new crime back to prison unjust, and they are calling for an end to the practice. They seek to reunite hundreds of families for the holidays and return of millions of dollars to our community and state budget.

What do you think – should we stop technical violations in Hennepin County and Minnesota?

*All names of incarcerated people in this story were changed to protect privacy.