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This article originally appeared on the Minnesota Reformer website on June 20, 2023. You can find the original here.

Minneapolis Police Lt. Kelly O’Rourke wears a tightly cropped cop haircut. He’s a 25-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department — most of those years spent investigating gangs.

Rep. Sandra Feist has a pixie cut with red streaks and wears cat eye glasses. She’s a progressive Democratic immigration attorney from New Brighton.

They sit in her downtown Minneapolis law office debating the meaning of the word polarizing.

They’re explaining how and why they began working together — an unlikely duo in today’s polarizing debate over the criminal justice system.

Together, they helped pass landmark reforms to the juvenile justice system. Those changes  were part of a larger public safety bill that takes a more rehabilitative approach to crime and punishment. It was the type of bill some cops and Republicans wrote off as soft on crime, but Democrats say is backed by evidence-based research.

 Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton. Courtesy photo.


O’Rourke ended up getting involved because he was frustrated watching young people start out doing some work for gangs, and then fall into crime when they realize they can get off easier because they’ll be prosecuted as juveniles — or just let go. When he began managing a metrowide task force on carjackings, he noticed most investigations of robberies and carjackings led back to juveniles.

“They start out as petty thieves and then they move into auto thefts and then they move into carjackings and then the carjackings are used for robberies and it just progresses and … the kids are just getting younger and younger and younger,” he said. “And as they get younger, there seems to be less desire to hold the kid accountable, which you can understand … a lot of these kids don’t entirely understand what they’re doing, or they don’t have the environment to support better behavior around them.”

O’Rourke began researching “where it’s being done right,” and a Star Tribune story led him to Colorado, a leader in restorative justice, which focuses on rehabilitating offenders by getting them to take responsibility for their actions and have empathy for their victims. 

One study found the Colorado program reduced recidivism from 30% to 9%.

He read about how former Colorado state Sen. Pete Lee wrote the legislation reforming the state’s juvenile justice system, and emailed him. Lee connected O’Rourke with Feist, and the two became unlikely but potent allies.

Feist started working on juvenile justice reforms in the spring of 2021, and early on reached out to Lee for guidance. Lee emphasized the importance of a diverse group of supporters — including law enforcement.

“I try to always be very open to all perspectives and make no assumptions,” Feist said of her first talk with O’Rourke. “It all happened very organically …  Immediately, I just thought that having (O’Rourke’s) voice as part of our testimony to the committee would be really helpful.”

O’Rourke could combat a common misperception, Feist said, that “restorative justice that it’s coddling kids.”

O’Rourke pledged a similarly open-minded attitude:  “I want to hear what everybody in the room has to say and then develop a solution after that.”

He joined Feist’s youth restorative justice group, which met every other week to examine state laws and what other states were doing.

While they originally envisioned the endeavor taking five to seven years, when Democrats unexpectedly took control of the Capitol in January, Feist decided to go for it this year. 

She brought in Sharon Hendrichs — who’s been practicing restorative justice in Yellow Medicine County for 20 years — to answer questions in meetings, which would often start out hostile but end up “ponderous and introspective,” Feist said.

One participant in Hendrichs’ program became a deputy sheriff. Another had been placed in facilities five times and been through eight treatment facilities before he succeeded through the restorative justice program, Hendrichs told lawmakers.

The bill expands the model statewide, creating a state Office of Restorative Practices to promote, assist and oversee the programs.

“The idea is meaningful accountability,” Feist said. “It’s like figuring out how to make that young person aware of the impact of their behavior, and make them make it up to that person in a way that means something to them.”

After Yellow Medicine County began the program just for property crimes in 2000 and gradually other crimes, too, out-of-home placement costs of offending juveniles were reduced by 85% over the next decade, from about $600,000 to $55,000 annually, Feist said. The approach has been used in 17 Minnesota counties.

Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson started a program in 2016, because he was tired of seeing kids follow in their “justice-involved” parents’ footsteps. He told lawmakers they’ve had 70 successful program completions, with a 9% recidivism rate, mostly misdemeanors. The program usually lasts about 90 days — a lot quicker than court proceedings. And 95% of those who start the program complete it, he said.

“Restorative justice isn’t easy: It’s hard work; requires passionate people and often requires the juvenile doing more work than traditional systems,” he said.

The Rev. Kendall Hughes, a retired federal prison chaplain, is co-founder and chairman of the Three Rivers restorative justice program in southeast Minnesota. He got involved after an inmate stabbed him 12 times in a prison chapel — barely missing his carotid artery – and then was put into solitary confinement for eight years. Within a month of getting out, the man assaulted two women and is now back in prison for life, Hughes told lawmakers.

Hughes battled paranoia and depression during the two years it took the case to wind through the court system. He agonized over writing a victim impact statement, and then the judge forgot to let him read it.

He never got reparations, never got to ask his attacker why he did it. He has led the Three Rivers program for 20 years, and found it healing. The program gives victims an opportunity to have a better experience than he did — they can ask questions about why, get reparations, and see their offender make changes, he said.

“I believe people like me who have been harmed by crime deserve more than the current system,” he said. “We need our current system, but we need something more also for people who have been harmed by crime.”

‘No place to put them’ 

O’Rourke went to a deputy chief and Police Chief Brian O’Hara, and they agreed to sign onto a letter supporting the bill alongside a long, diverse list of organizations and prominent Minnesotans. 

Feist said there’s a lot of political hyperbole surrounding criminal justice issues, but she allowed that “the two parties have a different relationship with law enforcement.”

She said law enforcement support for the legislation was especially crucial given Democrats’ fear of political blowback on the crime issue. 

“There’s always this political question on the DFL side … like ‘Are we soft on crime?’ and you know, ‘Are we taking crime seriously?’ It was definitely a really big political talking point by Republicans last election season.” 

The politics may have been dicey, but the policy was just as vexing. 

Law enforcement isn’t interested in things that might work, hypothetically, Feist said.

O’Rourke said locking up kids is not a solution. “Years ago, they’d go into the institution and come out institutionalized — they’d be even stronger-minded in their criminal behavior,” he said. 

But O’Rourke also said Hennepin County has gone too far in its resistance to detaining juveniles.

“I think we swung the gate so far the other way now that there was a lack of accountability.”

O’Rourke said parents often plead with police to hold onto their child for everyone’s safety. 

“We’re the first people who get asked, ‘Why don’t you hold my kid?’ We’re the one that has to respond to Mom with the 12-year-old that’s just been in a deadly car accident in a stolen car because 15-year-olds took them out joyriding.”

Minnesota has closed numerous juvenile facilities for the most serious offenders as part of a movement to avoid locking up kids, whose brains are still developing and often come out worse than when they went in.

Just a few months into her job, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty — who has been heavily criticized for her handling of some juvenile cases — seems to agree with O’Rourke. At a recent town hall meeting she said, “We have two 12-year-olds to 14-year-olds currently in the juvenile detention center who have been there for months because we have no resources, no place to put them,” she said.

Moriarty surprised herself — and others — by recently asking a judge to send a 12-year-old repeat car thief to a Utah behavioral rehabilitation program because there was no suitable place for him in Minnesota.

‘You can teach empathy’

The new law doesn’t require all Minnesota prosecutors to use restorative justice, and O’Rourke said some juveniles need to go through the traditional justice system or be held in a facility, even if that is unpopular with metro progressives.

“We all understand that they’re still kids,” O’Rourke said. “But we also have to have that final failsafe where we don’t just turn them back out to the public while they’re a danger … to the public or even themselves.”

Under the juvenile justice changes, advisory committees will help shape practices to fit communities’ comfort level, Feist said. 

The bill also includes millions in spending for youth intervention programs.

Feist said it’s “miraculous” that the bill passed, and with ongoing funding. It’s expensive and unnecessary to lock kids up in many cases, she said, and doing so makes them more likely to commit crimes.

 “We also as a society should believe in the concept of rehabilitation,” she said.

O’Rourke said most cops don’t want to throw kids in jail.

“There’s no meaningful accountability there,” he said. “The one thing that Pete Lee did say is while they’re young, you can teach empathy. So part of restorative justice is a creation of empathy.”