“Citing failures, Minnesota DFL lawmakers push juvenile justice system reforms”
This article originally appeared on the Star Tribune website on Janurary 12, 2023. You can find the original here.
The proposals would be the most significant changes in more than a generation.
By Chris Serres and Liz Sawyer Star Tribune. JANUARY 12, 2023 — 5:58PM
Minnesota Democrats have launched a concerted push to enact the most significant legislative changes to the state’s juvenile justice system in more than a generation.
A package of bills seeks to correct the state’s patchwork response to youth crime by creating a new state office of juvenile restorative justice, which would help establish programs across the state aimed at improving community safety without relying on courts and detention.
The proposals also would expand funding for crime prevention measures and make changes to a probation program that has funneled hundreds of teenagers to adult prisons.
If enacted, the legislation would mark the most significant expansion of state oversight of the juvenile justice system since the early 1990s. It reflects an emerging consensus among judges, attorneys and youth advocates that community-based programs are not adequate and more needs to be done to address the root causes of youth crime.
Flaws in the system
The proposals, many of which are still being written, come after a Star Tribune investigative series found deep flaws in the way local governments handle youth crime. Across the state, counties are failing to intervene early enough to help troubled youth, despite pleas from parents. State oversight is minimal, and the quality of youth rehabilitation programs varies from county to county. Meanwhile, some juvenile judges say they have run out of places to send many youth with trauma and mental health problems, because of facility closures and a national movement to reduce youth confinement.
“We need a more equitable and responsive juvenile justice system than the one we currently have — which clearly is not working,” said Rep. Sandra Feist, the DFL vice chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee and main architect of the package of juvenile bills. “Our focus has to be on prevention and intervention, on finding ways to get kids back on track and keeping them on track.”
The most significant proposal would establish a state Office of Juvenile Restorative Justice responsible for promoting alternative, community-based approaches to youth crime. Such programs typically spare offenders from a criminal record if they participate in dialogues with victims and others affected by their actions. Some Minnesota counties offer restorative programs for youth now, but they are poorly funded and lack consistent standards, the Star Tribune found.
The new state office would work with county prosecutors, defense attorneys and others to explain the “rigorous nature” of restorative programs, which have proved successful in many parts of the country at keeping kids from reoffending.
The director of the office would be appointed by the state Department of Human Services and would ensure that every county has at least one local restorative justice program. The office would help fund the new programs through state grants, though local jurisdictions would have the flexibility to design their own approaches and eligibility rules.
Democrats unite behind effort
Democrats say they are united behind this year’s proposals and have spent months organizing support from judges, victims’ advocacy groups and public defenders. They hope to channel a piece of the state’s $17.6 billion surplus toward intervention programs, such as mental health counseling and after-school activities, to help keep kids from offending.
“The election results indicate that voters and the public are really interested in not just rhetoric but action on youth justice issues,” said Malaika Eban, deputy director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.
But some Republican lawmakers have already denounced the proposals as too lenient and lacking in specific measures to combat carjackings and other violent crimes.
Rep. Paul Novotny, a former sheriff’s deputy from Sherburne County who is the Republican lead on the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, called the proposed state office of restorative justice a “massive increase in state bureaucracy” that would replicate work already being done at the county level.
DFL Senate President Bobby Joe Champion said he is crafting a bill aimed at correcting longstanding problems with Minnesota’s extended youth probation system.
Blended sentencing model scrutinized
Minnesota children can be placed on extended probation until their 21st birthday, or for as long as seven years. The program was created in the early 1990s to provide an alternative to incarceration for those who commit repeat violent crimes. It has become known as a “back door” to prison, ensnaring teens who would not normally qualify for adult criminal sentences.
About half of the 1,335 Minnesota youths who have been placed on extended probation since 2011 have seen that status revoked and adult criminal sentences imposed, according to a Star Tribune analysis of court data.
Champion said he did not agree with calls from some public officials to dismantle the program — known as extended jurisdiction juvenile, or EJJ — but he is seeking to amend state law to make the program less punitive.
“We have to modernize [extended probation] in order to make it more positively conducive for young people,” Champion said. “Rather than sending a kid to prison for a technical violation, we need to get to the root causes of some of the behaviors we see.”
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell supports placing legislative guardrails on EJJ to prevent disparate outcomes across the state, including on what types of violations qualify for revocation. But he is wary of abolishing the blended sentencing model because it could result in a surge of adult certifications.
“That may not serve anybody’s benefit, much less public safety,” said Schnell, who also supports legislation establishing a youth restorative justice office.
Age limits on prosecution
Other bills seek to protect a youth’s constitutional rights and improve conditions of confinement, such as requiring parental notification and consultation with an attorney during juvenile interrogations — rather than waiting until the child requests one — banning visual strip searches and punitive isolation within detention facilities and raising the minimum age of juvenile delinquency from 10 to 13.
At least 24 states have no minimum age for prosecuting children. A law change would place Minnesota more in line with states such as New York, California and Maryland, where juveniles younger than 12 cannot be funneled into the justice system, except in cases of violent crimes. The Hennepin County Attorney’s office filed 69 juvenile petitions against children 12 and under in 2020, according to state court data.
In many cases, criminal proceedings are stalled because children that young are unable to assist in their their own defense and ultimately ruled incompetent, defense attorneys say.
“They’re just not old enough, they’re not mature enough, their brain isn’t developed enough to be competent to face a criminal charge,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, who is directing her staff not to file delinquency cases against those under 13 whenever an alternative is available.
Another goal of the juvenile justice package, Feist said, is to better coordinate the state money that flows to youth rehabilitation programs.
Too often, say youth justice advocates, counties and nonprofits have been forced to close community-based programs because of unstable funding. In other cases, officials have little or no insight on whether the programs are working because outcomes are not monitored.
A bill Feist is drafting would appropriate state funds for restorative justice programs statewide and require the state Department of Public Safety to report each year on who is receiving the state grants and the recidivism rate for children who participate.
“There is a high degree of energy and focus on this topic right now — and we need to capitalize on that in an orderly way,” Feist said. “That is my dream.”