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Ramsey County to end gang surveillance program due to poor results, racial disparities
Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 7/24/2020
Jul. 23--Citing poor results and startling racial disparities, Ramsey County is disbanding a specialized unit within its probation program aimed exclusively at gang members.
The gang unit, which started 23 years ago, engaged in enhanced surveillance of gang members convicted of crimes in order to break their involvement with the organized groups, track gang activity and keep the community safer.
However, stringent probation conditions set up participants to fail and did little to improve public safety, according to Ramsey County Community Corrections staff members Chris Crutchfield and Monica Long.
That's because of the unit's heavy focus on surveillance, they said. Gang members sentenced to the program are forbidden from associating with other gang members, even those in their own families, and are expected to abide by strict curfews in the early months of the program, among other atypical rules.
By comparison, other people convicted of crimes are assigned a risk level for reoffending and given probation terms accordingly. Understanding the root causes for criminal behavior, such as addiction, mental health and poverty, and connecting probationers with resources to address those causes is a big component of their programming, Long and Crutchfield said.
That element of rehabilitation has been missing from the gang unit.
"It was really a tail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em approach to probation, which we have really moved away from as a county," said Crutchfield, deputy director of the county's corrections program.
The unit also heavily targets toward young men of color. The majority of participants are men ages 18 to 25, and 90 percent are men of color, the county reported. Seventy-five percent are Black.
That finding jarred Long, the deputy director of probation services, when she was brought on board in November and assembled a team to look at adult probation reform.
Her team also discovered a troubling difference in the recidivism and success rates between men in the gang unit versus those on traditional probation:
-- Between 2015 and 2017, 48 percent of probationers in the gang unit committed a new crime, compared with 32 percent of "high-risk" offenders on traditional probation, the county reported.
-- And nearly 90 percent of those in the gang unit racked up a violation during their first year of probation, compared with about 50 percent on the traditional track.
Successfully completing probation while in the gang unit has been the "exception rather than the rule," the county reported.
In a recent analysis, 35 of 38 participants sent to the unit in 2017 and 2018 exited due to incarceration or death.
"At the end of the day, we want to keep Ramsey County residents safe and help our clients get back to leading law-abiding lives, and the gang unit wasn't doing that," Crutchfield said. "We weren't getting the results we wanted ... and the racial disparities were very concerning."
MONITORING MATCHED TO RISK
The roughly 40 young men still in the program will be diverted to traditional probation with conditions matching their risk level, not gang affiliation.
High-risk offenders still will be closely monitored, and probation officers still will discuss gang affiliation when appropriate, said Corey Hazelton, assistant deputy director of the county's adult services division.
"We will still be talking about who you hang out with, if you have an interest in leaving the gang. We are still going to have those conversations," Hazelton said. "It is just not going to be our sole focus to surveil you and watch your every move."
Both he and Crutchfield acknowledge the upcoming change has led to pushback from some probation officers and others in law enforcement. Having a probation officer with an eye trained on the activities of all gang members on probation has led to great intelligence for law enforcement, Hazelton said.
"We are certainly taking away a valuable resource for the probation officers in the unit because they become experts on gang activity," he said. "They hear things that other people don't hear."
However, law enforcement can find way other ways to gather that information, Crutchfield said.
"It's certainly not worth keeping 40 young people of color in a unit where they are not succeeding," Crutchfield said. "That is not a trade-off we want to make."
Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter said the unit's disbandment is a necessary change that's been a long time coming.
"This doesn't mean that young people do not need solutions or supervision. They do. It just means that the gang designation has not helped us achieve our desired outcomes of lower recidivism and keeping the community safe," Carter said. "Either you get out of the gang unit by going to prison or dying, basically. ... We need to do better than that, and we can."
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