Minnesota’s failed juvenile justice system

The Star Tribune has published a 3-part series on Minnesota’s juvenile justice system.  The series paints a picture of inexplicably poor decisions made by our political and juvenile justice leadership over several years. These decisions effectively gutted a system that at one time had success in reaching and rehabilitating children caught up in criminal activity. 

“It was a pearl on the prairie.  We took children who were broken and traumatized, and turned them into thinking, empathetic beings.”   

Gloria Morrow-Peterson, a former psychiatric social worker at the Hennepin County Home School from 1989-1997

Cells and beds were a critical part in any past success.  As noted in the series, more than a dozen juvenile facilities have been closed in the past decade, and bed space in the remaining juvenile correctional facilities has dropped by 40% statewide, and 50% in the metro since 2015.

In 2019, the Hennepin County Home School, Boys Totem Town in St. Paul, and Hills Youth and Family Services in Duluth all tragically were closed with no viable alternatives in place.    

Facility closures and the general philosophical change on how to deal with juvenile crime can be largely credited to a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) that many counties in the state bought into beginning in 2005. 

The theory behind JDAI was that juvenile incarceration led to more incarceration. Community-based programs were emphasized and prioritized over incarceration for many juvenile offenders.  The JDAI philosophy dominated juvenile justice in the metro for more than a decade.

From 2005 – 2020 “bookings” for the juvenile detention facilities in Ramsey and Hennepin Counties decreased over 80%.  Juvenile probation officers and community-based programing were intended to pick up the slack.  They didn’t.

“All we were doing was not incarcerating the kids, but we weren’t giving them programs, so they were going out untreated.”

Former Juvenile Court Judge Gary Bastian

Many justice leaders have been critical of Hennepin County’s actions, specifically on the closing of the Home School without a viable alternative in place. 

“I’m not saying is was perfect, but to say that no young person should be placed in any out-of-home placement at any time is unrealistic.”

Judge Tanya Bransford

The Star Tribune series has been written in a year in which Minnesotan’s have witnessed firsthand the out-of-control nature of far too many juveniles.  Car jackings, robberies, assaults, and shootings involving juveniles have skyrocketed, particularly in the metro area.

Just this week, Ramsey County deputies attempted to stop a stolen vehicle and were led on a 28-mile chase throughout the metro.  When they finally apprehended the driver, it turned out to be a 16-year-old male wearing an ankle bracelet applied by his probation officer to restrict and track his movements.  The boy had 9 previous arrests for fleeing police, possession of firearms, assault and was found to be recovering from gunshot wounds he received in TWO separate recent shootings.   

This case represents all the failure that is our juvenile justice system in 2022.

It is no stretch to conclude that years of weak responses to criminal behavior have taught Minnesota juveniles that there are no consequences to crime.  It’s also not a stretch to understand that today’s violent adult offender was yesterday’s juvenile. 

This is a mess of our own making, and we must demand that fixing the failed approach of supervision over incarceration is a priority for our leaders going forward.


Read the Star Tribune series using the links below:

Juvenile Injustice is a Star Tribune special report examining how Minnesota’s juvenile justice system is failing young people, families and victims of violence.

Part 1: Broken promises, shattered lives
The consequences can be deadly when the juvenile system fails to intervene in the lives of Minnesota’s most troubled kids.

Part 2: Justice ‘by ZIP code, not fairness’
Minnesota has no uniform standards for who can join diversion programs or what they offer.

Part 3: Nowhere to go for most troubled youth
As youth detention centers close, Minnesota runs out of places to rehabilitate kids who commit serious crimes.