Teen criminal justice gets ‘community review’ in Minnesota

Ramsey County is piloting a program focused on equity, restoration and rehabilitation instead of criminal records.

Before John Choi became the Ramsey County District Attorney in Minnesota in 2011 — when he was the city attorney for St. Paul, the county seat — he thought critically about the criminal justice system in America. “There is a very dangerous assumption that everything we do works, that somehow truth and justice will always prevail in the process,” he says. “But the current system we have is not that efficient. There are huge racial disparities. We [have a] a better understanding of the collateral consequences of a conviction and how it hinders people instead of helping them. Our traditional system just doesn’t produce what we think it produces.

“I used to think it was my job to come out and educate the public assuming that everything we do is generally good, but now I’ve come to believe that my job is to be in the community, to learn from community perspectives, and be intentional about bringing that perspective to the table,” adds Choi.

Today, his philosophy is put into practice. Since July, Ramsey County has been experimenting with using a three-person “collaborative review team” to help determine outcomes for young people who break the law.

The work is part of Choi’s larger effort to extract the inequalities and injustices that are entrenched in the youth criminal justice system.

“We recognize and acknowledge that the justice system has produced some things that are good, but at the same time we have to recognize that it has also produced things that are bad for the community, like over-incarceration,” Choi says.

Youth cases referred to the county attorney’s office for prosecution disproportionately involve African American men. Of the 1,450 young people referred in 2020, 1,059 were male and 941 of them were African American. Additionally, from 2010 to 2019, 60% of youth who came into contact with the county’s criminal justice system had only one referral. However, 31% had two to five referrals, 7% had six to 12 referrals, and 1%, or 230 youth, had 12 or more referrals.

Armed with this information and a growing understanding of the long-term impacts of sentencing, Choi’s department launched (Re)Imagining Justice For Youth in 2014. The review team falls under this umbrella and is a test of alternatives to the traditional juvenile justice system. people.

The collaborative review team includes a representative from the county attorney’s office, a public defender and a community member. Brenda Burnside, who has a background in conflict resolution, special education and restorative community work, is that community member.

They meet twice a week for two hours, dealing with about five cases at a time. Burnside prefers to discuss the child in question first rather than the facets of the case. “Very often we hear that a wrong was done or whatever the crime or the charge was in the first place, and it’s hard for us to think of that young person as a child at a developmental stage,” she says. .

The group then goes through a series of questions designed to unravel the underlying context – whether or not there is trauma present or inequalities at play. “Do they have access to everything they need to succeed? Where do they live? If a child is truant for example, are there buses or means of transport available for him to go to school? Burnside asks. “Other inequities could exist if they are homeless. To what extent are these young people profiled or targeted? »

Another variable the team considers is the extent of family support. Burnside often calls the accused’s family members to get as full an understanding as possible.

Once the group feels they have a solid understanding of the case from all angles, they recommend the remedy. Depending on the level of harm caused and the needs of the young person, cases may be referred to family for in-home treatment, case management services such as drug treatment, or restorative justice opportunities before or after charging. The final option is the traditional court process.

In February, the team reviewed 146 cases, and only 11 have been sent to court so far. Case management and restorative justice work is handled by organizations under contract with the prosecutor’s office.

Among the cases that did not go to trial, two made the front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in October under the bold headline “Crime – But No Punishment.”

The story features a 16-year-old who stole a car with a dog inside after one of his cases went through the diversion program in July and was eventually charged, or “submitted in court” in the parlance of the county juvenile system. . Due to the dire circumstances of the 16-year-old’s new car theft, this case skipped the collaborative review and went straight to court. In August, the teenager pleaded guilty in both cases and has since been serving time at a nearby correctional facility.

The story also highlights a disappointed grandmother that her grandson, who suffers from an opioid addiction and was cited for stealing from an Uber driver, was not sent to jail, but instead been referred to the county diversion program. Some high-level law enforcement figures aren’t happy either. Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher alleged in an Oct. 14 letter to Choi that he was not told about the collaborative review team until September. (Choi says law enforcement has been asked to participate on several occasions.) Fletcher urged Choi to suspend the program.

Mitra Jalali, a member of the council of Saint-Paul, supports him.

“County Attorney Choi’s work to break the punitive cycles of prosecutions that set back our youth and our communities is important and much needed,” she said. “Instead of just throwing people away, we should connect them to resources that help them make better and different choices in addition to holding them accountable.”

Choi stresses that his office reserves all final decision-making on cases, and that the pilot project is to replace an adversarial system with a collaborative one. Rather than relying solely on information from the police and what is turned over by the defense, Choi sees the collaborative review process as an opportunity for both parties to work together to achieve the most effective outcome for the youth and the community on a case-by-case basis. case basis.

“Can’t we aim for better outcomes for everyone involved – that is, the person who was hurt, the person accused of hurting someone and, ultimately, the people who surround him?”

Choi’s office is working with a researcher from the University of Minnesota to measure the results of the pilot project and expects to have data to share about the impact to date soon.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in National Geographic, US News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds a master’s degree in social design, with a focus on intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology and fine arts from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

follow the cinnamon .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

About Jefferey G. Cannon

Check Also

Craven Community College will host a chamber music concert

NEW BERN, NC – Craven Community College will host a chamber music concert on May …