State not meeting funding obligation for probation services

By Joel Stottrup

Sherburne County probation director Jay Hancuch and his counterpart Warren Liepitz in Mille Lacs County say they are finding their job increasingly challenged financially by the state not following its probation-funding obligation.

In fact, the state has been cutting back on what it owes the counties for their probation services each year since 1996, according to Hancuch and Liepitz. 1996 was the last time the state fully met its statutory obligation on this, they said.

Minnesota Statute 244.19 states that the Minnesota Department of Corrections “shall annually, from funds appropriated for that purpose, pay 50 percent of the costs of probation officers’ salaries to all counties of not more than 200,000 population.”

Mille Lacs’ population was 25,979 as of 2011, and Sherburne’s was 89,319.

The main purpose of that state funding is to reimburse counties for the costs they assume under law of providing probation and parole services to the wards of the Department of Corrections. County boards have pleaded with the state to remedy the matter, passing resolutions to that effect. With a new budget year coming up, the issue is again more visible for Liepitz and Hancuch.

The two probation directors said in recent interviews that they also wish the state would have only one type of probation setup, rather than three different systems across the state’s 87 counties. The problem is that when a probation director talks to a legislator about the funding gap, the legislator has difficulty knowing a particular county’s circumstance because of the three probation systems, Hancuch said.

Mille Lacs and Sherburne are among the 27 Minnesota counties with a county probation officer system, or CPO. The chief probation director in the CPO system supervises the probation officers, who supervise the offenders on probation, with the exception of adult felony cases. The CPO counties are therefore responsible for adult gross misdemeanor, adult misdemeanor and juvenile offenders.

A second system that some counties have is called the DOC, in which the state Department of Corrections supervises all the probation and court service agents. Each region of the state in this system has a district supervisor and the counties are billed for up to 50 percent of the salaries (per statewide scale) and benefits for each agent position, with the exception of felony probation officers.

Still other Minnesota counties have a community corrections act system. The setup there is that either large counties like in the metro region or small groups of counties with a combined population of 30,000 or more can work together to provide all of the correctional services in a region. A corrections advisory board oversees this system and must submit comprehensive plans to the Department of Corrections for approval. Funding comes through a block grant.

Anoka County has a community corrections act system that provides services for all cases involving probation, Hancuch noted. He is familiar with that county, since Hancuch, now heading toward his 32nd year in probation work, spent 18 of those years in the Anoka County probation department.

When the state does not fund probation work as it is supposed to, the costs “get passed down to us,” Hancuch said, referring to the counties.

Hancuch noted that probation departments collect fees for various services. Although the fees in Sherburne have partially filled the gap left by the state, it is not the county’s job to bring in fees to make up the difference, Hancuch said. And whether or not fees help, the state should just be paying the 50 percent as the law states, Hancuch added. He pointed out that last year the situation reached an “all time low” of the state only paying 30.04 percent.

Hancuch also noted that if a person on probation does not pay the fee they are billed, it is not a violation. What the county does in that case is send a claim to the state for “revenue capture.” One way the state may capture revenue is to deduct it from a tax refund.

Another way to deal with nonpayment of fees is for the offender to work off the amount due through community work services, which could include cleaning brush out of ditches and working in parks, at local food shelves and with nonprofits.

Sherburne had 1,978 adults and 253 juveniles under supervision last year. The actual number of total cases was 2,137, Hancuch explaining that an offender can be part of more than one case. The probation department in Sherburne does more than supervision. It also uses evidence-based programs to improve the situation of those on probation, Hancuch noted. The programs are proven to reduce recidivism (repeat of crimes) and one of the programs is cognitive restructuring, or giving a person tools to change their behavior, he said.

“Nobody’s got an invitation to come to my department,” Hancuch continued. “They are here for a reason. They need to be held accountable. Our job is to monitor and enforce the court order.”

Regarding the shortfall in state reimbursement, Hancuch said his department “does not have a lot of fluff.” About  95 percent of the budget is for salaries and fringe benefits of the employees, he said.

In Mille Lacs, the general fund has to make up for the lack of state reimbursement, Liepitz said. The fees his department is collecting are “not filling the hole,” he said.

While Mille Lacs’ adult felony cases are handled by the state Department of Corrections like in Sherburne, probation departments work closely with the Department of Corrections, Liepitz noted.

“Some of our clients have been their clients and some of their clients have been ours,” he said.

Liepitz said that DWIs and domestic abuse make up the largest amount of his department’s cases. There are very few juvenile DWI cases, whereas assaults and thefts are more common for juveniles, according to Liepitz. Juvenile cases, he said, also include tobacco, alcohol and drug violations.

A large number of juvenile violations are handled through a “diversion process,” which in Mille Lacs totaled 110-120 last year. Diversion is usually for juveniles with petty cases like shoplifting or underage tobacco violations, and it starts with law enforcement reporting on the offense to the county attorney, Liepitz explained. If the case meets the attorney’s criteria for diversion, such as being a petty offense and a first time violation, it goes to the probation officer instead of court. The child comes to a diversion conference with their parent. A program, such as community service, is assigned. If  juveniles successfully complete their service, the case can go back to the county attorney to remove the charge from the record, Liepitz said.

Complex rules govern which jurisdiction handles cases. Liepitz explained that in diversion cases, the handling of the juvenile takes place in the county of residence, no matter where the crime was committed. If it is not a diversion process, then prosecution takes place in the county where the crime occurred, but the juvenile is sentenced in the county of residence, Liepitz said.

If the juvenile has a serious offense “such as robbery at the Mall of America and has a past record, they might end up in placement,” Liepitz said. He explained that it could be in a group home, a foster home, a correctional facility or a residential treatment center.

Liepitz put into hard numbers what the difference is between what his department got from the state last year and what it should have gotten. He explained that his department made $422,866 in claims to the state and got back $128,965.

“We should’ve gotten $211,000, which is half,” Liepitz said.

The theory for why the state set up its reimbursement rules long ago was that handling probation is a joint responsibility of the state and local governments, Liepitz said.

“We (the counties) have no control over who gets a DWI or a domestic at a residence or hotel,” Liepitz added.

Liepitz has also been this line of work for a long stretch. Liepitz began working as a social worker at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute in Ohio. He left there after five years and next worked as a probation officer from 1977 to 1996 in Minnesota. It started out in the Mid-State Probation Department that involved Mille Lacs, Sherburne and Kanabec counties, with Sherburne first breaking off to go independent, and later Kanabec leaving.

Liepitz became Mille Lacs County Director of Probations in 1996 when Rollie Lund retired from the position.