Focusing on Juvenile Justice Reform in Minnesota

Article excerpt

The juvenile justice system has two main concerns when a youth is involved in a juvenile offense: public safety, in terms of an action having taken place against the state; and youth safety, in that continued delinquent behavior is not in the youth's best interest. From either end, a youth becoming involved in the system signals a crisis and a need for intervention--and this is before considering the myriad mental health, chemical dependency, socioeconomic or family issues that many system-involved youths face. Reaction to youth behavior can take many forms, whether punitive, rehabilitative, educational or restorative. Any reaction requires public funds and any response is typically geared toward an outcome, whether in the form of reducing recidivism or shifting the youth's behavior toward pro-social goals.

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Minnesota law recognizes the need to promote public safety and reduce juvenile delinquency: "The purpose of the laws relating to children alleged or adjudicated to be delinquent is to promote the public safety and reduce juvenile delinquency ... through means that are fair and just, that recognize the unique characteristics and needs of children, and that give children access to opportunities for personal and social growth." (1) Minnesota statute requires that dispositions for juvenile delinquents serve the best interest of the child and are necessary to the rehabilitation of the child. (2) Disposition options range from simple counseling of the child or his or her family to orders for restitution, probation supervision or transfer of legal custody of the child.

While the juvenile justice system in Hennepin County, Minn., has done well to focus on the immediate needs and interests of system-involved youths, it has not as deliberately looked at data and outcomes to determine whether its interventions have lasting effects. For instance, research clearly finds enduring detrimental impacts for youths who are held in secure detention or extended correctional placement; however, many professionals still believe that these are the only tools that effectively hold a youth accountable. Understanding how to best work with juvenile offenders is important for all communities in the long term. With this in mind, the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCCR) made great strides to develop and maintain multiple community-based initiatives to prevent youth violence and improve public safety by harnessing evidence-based practices, partnering with community-based programs and reallocating cost savings.

DOCCR is Minnesota's largest correctional program, serving more than 31,000 adult and juvenile offenders each day. In delivering its services, the department seeks to enhance the health, safety and quality of life of its residents and communities in a respectful, efficient and fiscally responsible way. Its mission is to provide community safety using practices that are based on research, data and evaluation; to allow community restoration; and, in cooperation with the courts, community and criminal justice partners, to reduce the risk of reoffense. The juvenile services division supervises more than 2,100 youths each day between probation, the Hennepin County Home School (the county-owned residential facility) and the Juvenile Detention Center. Six years ago, these numbers were significantly larger. In 2005, more than 1,400 felony petitions were filed, 4,500 youths were admitted to the Juvenile Detention Center and detention length averaged 7.54 days. In 2009, these numbers stood at just about 860 petitions filed, 2,290 youths admitted and detention length averaged seven days. As in most cases, the numbers do not tell the whole story about how and why changes were made.

Forming a Working Collaborative

In 2008, juvenile justice stakeholders and leadership from Hennepin County's administration, board commissioners, DOCCR, juvenile court and human services department recognized that the county's juvenile justice processes were lacking. …