Tale of Three States: Minnesota’s Surprisingly Large Supervised Population

As noted here a few weeks ago, my forthcoming article comparing imprisonment trends in Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in now available on-line.  Due to space constraints, I was unable to include in the article all of the interesting data I have collected on the three states.  I’ll present some of that additional material in an occasional series of posts here.

Today, let’s take a look at the supervised populations of the three states.  The supervised population is comprised of four subgroups: those in prisons, those in jails, those on probation, and those out on post-imprisonment supervised release (a status that goes by different names in different jurisdictions, but which I will call parole).  As is well known, Minnesota has a remarkably low imprisonment rate (at least by U.S. standards), although all three states have experienced an  imprisonment boom since the 1970s.  Here are the imprisonment numbers, reflecting the number of prisoners per 100,000 state residents: 

imprisonment numbers



As the graph indicates, Minnesota has maintained a consistently lower imprisonment rate than the other two states since the mid-1960s.  Indeed, the Minnesota advantage has tended to widen over time.  By contrast, Indiana has generally had the highest imprisonment rate, although Wisconsin has been close at times, and even took the lead for a few years.

The story is quite different, however, if you consider the supervision numbers more broadly. 

Here are the numbers of supervised individuals per 100,000 residents (excluding jail inmates):



In this graph, it is Wisconsin, not Minnesota, that stands out as being consistently the lowest.  Minnesota’s supervised population, by contrast, rivals that of Indiana and has sometimes been the highest of the three states.  Whatever may be driving the Minnesota imprisonment advantage, it does not seem to result from a failure to respond to crime. Indeed, it is especially remarkable to see Minnesota rivaling Indiana here because Minnesota’s crime rates have generally been much lower than Indiana’s — less crime then, but about as many people being managed by the criminal-justice system.

Jail numbers have been excluded from the graph, by the way, because historical jail numbers are hard to come by.

Here is a more precise breakdown of the supervised populations from 2005, the most recent year for which I have been able to find published jail data:

supervised 2


High probation numbers thus seem to drive Minnesota’s high supervised population.  About 85% of Minnesota’s supervised offenders are on probation, as compared to little more than 50% in Wisconsin.  Moreover, Minnesota’s ratio of probationers to prisoners has consistently been higher than that of the other two states for a long time:

probation per prisoner


On the face of it, the numbers seem to reflect a very different criminal-justice strategy in Minnesota than the other two states — a strategy in which probation is emphasized to a much greater extent as the preferred form of supervision over imprisonment.  From a fiscal standpoint anyway, this strategy would seem a very attractive one.

All data come from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Scott Leverington

    As a Probation Officer in Minnesota, I found your article very interesting. I think some deeper digging might find that Minnesota’s probation statistics may be somewhat skewed because they keep people on probation for very long periods of time, even when there have been no problems. For those who are doing very well and might be discharged from probation in other states, Minnesota uses “Group Supervision” which is a very low level of supervision but they still are on probation.

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