The Shape of Re-Entry: Probation and the Penal Field in Minnesota

This guest post comes from the second speaker in the opening plenary at our upcoming conference, Joshua Page of the University of Minnesota.

In Spring 2007, I interviewed three young African American men serving time in a juvenile correctional facility in Minnesota. Michael, Jerome, and Scottie were locked up for serious crimes (respectively: gun possession and burglary, distribution of crack cocaine, and robbery). Over the subsequent five years, I have conducted interviews and ethnography with the three as they’ve sought to “make it”—to establish crime-free, satisfying lives—after serving juvenile time.

These young men were sentenced under a law called “Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction” (EJJ). (They were juveniles when sentenced, but adults when I began interviewing them.) Minnesota passed the Juvenile Crime Act that created EJJ (also known as the “Serious Youthful Offender” law) in 1994. EJJ provided an intermediate category between the juvenile and adult courts.

The idea for EJJ came out of a task force that had been convened in response to public and political pressure in Minnesota and across the United States. There was a strong perception that there had been a surge in serious juvenile crime committed by racial minorities. In other states, opportunistic politicians used the moral panic to pass “tough on crime” measures that made it easier to transfer youths to adult court and sentence them to adult prisons. Minnesota, however, created EJJ as a compromise to satisfy both influential actors who wanted harsher sanctions for “serious youthful offenders” and those who wanted to keep kids in the juvenile system and offer them rehabilitative services. In this climate, EJJ was a relatively progressive alternative.

This EJJ legislation was a product of Minnesota’s penal field, a semiautonomous social space in which actors with different amounts and types of resources struggle to determine penal priorities, policies, and practices (one might picture a sporting field; but a sporting field in which the boundaries, rules, and goals of the game are continually challenged). Minnesota’s penal field differs from the penal fields in other states, and several of its key characteristics shaped the development of EJJ:

  • Power of Traditional Experts and Expertise: As in other states, politicians and law enforcement groups (including prosecutors) hold dominant positions in Minnesota’s penal field. However, traditional experts with have academic and penological expertise (especially legal scholars, criminologists, and criminal justice professionals) also occupy relatively strong positions in Minnesota’s penal field—this is not the case elsewhere. Although subordinate to legislators, law enforcement, and prosecutors, these traditional experts (who often form alliances with defense attorneys and advocacy groups) influence the nature and outcomes of penal policy deliberations.
  • Deliberative Decision-making: A dominant principle of Minnesota’s penal field is its commitment to deliberative decision-making over knee-jerk, populist legislating. Hence, Minnesota was the first state to develop a Sentencing Commission to create and monitor binding sentencing guidelines. The modus operandi is to form task forces and administrative bodies comprised of diverse “stakeholders” to hash out penal policy proposals that the legislature passes, tweaks, or rejects. This process limits (though it can’t eliminate) spontaneous, populist lawmaking.
  • Managerial Orientation: The principle of “public safety” (and its twin, “victims rights”) gained stature in Minnesota and other states’ penal fields in the ‘90s. The “rehabilitative ideal” decreasingly oriented practice, though proponents of rehabilitation continued to struggle for correctional programs and practices. While public safety and, to a lesser extent, rehabilitation are important principles in the contemporary field, “managerialism” is the dominant orientation. Minnesota’s emphasis is on risk management, cost-savings, and judiciousness.

So, Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction was a product of the unique configuration and orientation of Minnesota’s penal field. Although Minnesota faced similar pressures as other states to toughen up on young offenders, Minnesota produced a novel “solution.” Rather than simply transfer “serious youthful offenders” to prison, judges could give them a blended sentence: a stint in a juvenile correctional facility and intensive probation until the age of 21—with the threat of prison time hanging over their heads if they messed up (and the promise that the adult sentence would be dropped if they completed their probation successfully).

Although the EJJ compromise arguably keeps some young people from going to adult prison, it also makes their re-entry very difficult. Michael, Scottie, and Jerome served time in a rehabilitative facility that made them optimistic about future prospects. However, when they returned to the community, they lacked the social, economic, and cultural resources necessary to establish solid footholds in conventional institutions (especially work).

Their “intensive probation” was set up to manage them as risks. After all, the young people were deemed “the best of the worst of the worst.” It was not meant to attend to their individual needs and desires. Without assistance from probation (or other sources), Scottie and Jerome quickly became despondent and returned to crime. Michael was lucky: his probation officer (an exception that proves the rule) helped him acquire work and housing that aided his re-entry. But it’s clear that, for most young offenders, EJJ’s hybrid structure of juvenile treatment and intensive supervisory probation, well-meaning as it is, actually sets them up for disappointment and depression, if not prison time.

Now Extended Juvenile Jurisdiction, a product and reflection of Minnesota’s penal field, shapes (though doesn’t fully determine) the nature of probation that “young serious offenders” experience. The ineffective combination of intensive supervision and a lack of meaningful assistance is not the fault of individual probation officers. Rather, it’s a product of policy generated in a particular place in a particular historical moment. The field, then, structures both the development and implementation of probation and other penal policies. Meaningful reform, therefore, requires altering the field’s composition, assumptions, and principles—not simply demonstrating that individual policies “don’t work.”


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