Kelly Lyn Mitchell, the executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, departed the research center earlier this month after being appointed to a position in the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC).
In her new role as assistant commissioner of Community Services and Reentry at the DOC, Mitchell is now in charge of Minnesota’s probation and supervised release services. The position also oversees reentry, community notification and family support services for people who are incarcerated.
Mitchell brings years of experience leading research efforts involving sentencing, prison release and community supervision to the role, and as chair of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, helped usher in policies like a five-year cap on probation for most felony offenses.
MinnPost spoke with Mitchell over the phone for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: What made you want to make that switch from the Robina Institute to your new role?
Kelly Lyn Mitchell: I have worked in state government before. Robina was a little bit of a change for me originally because I moved from state government to more of a research role at the Robina Institute. While I really enjoyed that, I do miss actually working in the field, being in government and making things happen.
When this opportunity came up, I was really excited to be able to return to state government and work in a role where I could make a difference in the way things work in the state of Minnesota.
MP: Are there specific areas of research you conducted at Robina that you hope to bring or implement at the DOC?
KLM: The Robina Institute did research primarily in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, and so here in my new role I am overseeing probation services as well as supervised release, which is Minnesota’s version of parole. So the work that I’ve done researching in those three areas is really relevant to the role that I have here.
It’s not so much about bringing in research and changing everything about the way the Department of Corrections operates, but it’s about informing our operations with the research. I definitely have that close connection to what the current evidence-based practices are, and so I’ll be looking to that as I start to really dive into this role.
MP: Can you tell me about your more recent research related to community supervision, and what that would look like practically?
KLM: Probably the biggest and most relevant project that I worked on at the Robina Institute was the Reducing Revocations Challenge, where we partnered with Ramsey County Community Corrections to try to figure out why people were being violated on probation and revoked. What were the reasons behind those violations and revocations? In Ramsey, we found a couple of key findings, one of them being new criminal behavior. Obviously, people were more likely to be revoked if they committed new criminal behavior, that’s expected. But some of the other types of violations that we saw that were really high were things like failure to maintain contact with the probation officer, substance abuse violations, having positive drug tests, that sort of thing.
We’ve been really diving into what’s going on there, especially with the failure to maintain contact. When we looked under the hood there, we found really important things like developing the relationship between the probation officer and the person on probation and how important that was, how important it was for the person to feel supported and to be held accountable for their actions but in a way that gave them agency and the ability to make decisions about what they would do, how they would handle things, and really gave them the tools for changing their own behavior. Those are lessons that I definitely want to bring to this role here as well.
MP: How do you think your experience on the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission will inform the work in your new role?
KLM: The Sentencing Guidelines Commission is actually about to start a comprehensive review of the sentencing guidelines that have been in place for 43 years, but haven’t been reviewed top to bottom in that time. As we really get into that review, we’re going to keep asking those hard questions about which offenses or which situations is prison the appropriate response, and in which situations is probation the appropriate response.
Where can we make the most impact with individuals to change behaviors so that this time in the criminal justice system is their last time in the criminal justice system? I think that those discussions are going to be helpful to me in this role, but I think it’s also going to go the other way in that the work that I get to do with folks in field services here are going to teach me about what I should be thinking about on the sentencing guidelines commission.
MP: As an appointed member of the public, will you retain your spot on the commission now that you’re a government employee, and will you remain the chair?
KLM: One of the spots on the commission is the Commissioner of Corrections or a designee, and shortly after I arrived at the DOC, the Commissioner of Corrections (Paul Schnell) did designate me to fill that spot on the commission. That’s the position of the holding going forward.
I am currently the chair but the governor (Gov. Tim Walz) has not yet made his appointments for 2023. So I hope that I will continue to be the chair, but that hasn’t yet been confirmed.
MP: What do you make of some of the criminal justice measures passed by the Legislature this past session?
KLM: The Legislature made a historic investment in community supervision this year by adding $40 million for the funding stream for community supervision and that’s just so incredibly important. It really opens up a lot of opportunities for us to do supervision so much better. It means that not only the DOC, but all of the agencies that provide supervision across the state will have the funding that they need to have the appropriate number of probation officers and to spend time with individuals on probation in the way that best promotes behavioral change.
Along with that, they laid down some requirements for how they want to see supervision done. There’s a community supervision advisory group that will be formed that will be setting statewide supervision standards, and that will be standardizing some of the ways that we all approach the delivery of supervision in the state. All of those things are going to move us more towards evidence-based practices that make probation stronger, and should have a better impact on the way that we work with people in the criminal justice system.
MP: Are there other specific challenges or disparities that you hope to target in your new role?
KLM: I think there are two big challenges for providing supervision in the state. One of them is that a lot of the state is rural and that means that we have a lot of ground to cover in working with individuals. That means individuals who are on supervision have long distances to travel to engage in the programming that we want them to engage in. Making sure that we have the same access to programs in rural areas as in urban areas is a huge goal, and I hope that with the new investment that the Legislature has made, we will be able to make some strides in that area.
Another area that’s sort of common to Minnesota is that people who are Black and Native American experience higher violation rates and revocation rates than people who are white. That is something that I think we need to pay attention to and make some changes to ensure that everybody’s being treated equally across the system.
For people who are Native American, the Legislature also invested in helping to stand up tribal probation departments. I know the DOC is working to help with that effort and that is very exciting to me. If people who are Native American are able to work with Native American probation officers, that’s going to make a huge difference in how they work through the probation system. So I think that’s another really huge opportunity in front of us that I’m excited to see how that works.