Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who normally holds news conferences to highlight prosecutions, assembled the media on a sidewalk near the county juvenile detention center Tuesday to outline policies he’s promoted to keep youths from being locked up.
“Many of these juveniles do dumb things,” he said. “But committing a low-level crime should not follow you the rest of your life.”
Freeman, who is running for a sixth term as Hennepin County attorney, faces an election challenge from Minneapolis attorney and DFL endorsee Mark Haase, who has accused Freeman of racial disparities in prosecutions.
Freeman said that most juvenile records are supposed to be nonpublic, but “there are plenty of people who can get access, as can hackers.”
He said that one initiative he’s pushed has reduced the number of juvenile cases referred by schools to his office from 2,513 in 2007 to 728 in the 2016-17 school year. Now, he said, schools are handling minor problems, such as minor property damage and shoving matches, with their own discipline. “If there ever was a school-to-prison pipeline in Hennepin County, this hard work by the schools and by our office has ruptured this pipeline,” he said.
Freeman also touted his policies that divert youths arrested for lower-level crimes to programs that include making restitution but do not result in a juvenile criminal record. In 2017, of 6,072 cases received by his office’s juvenile division, 2,045 were diverted, he said.
Haase said Tuesday that over about the past 20 years, juvenile crime has fallen about 70 percent nationally. “I think [Freeman] is taking a lot of credit for a trend that is taking place around the country,” he said.
Even though the juvenile detention rate in the county has gone down, racial disparities have gone up for blacks and American Indians, Haase said. “I believe about 70 percent of the kids in detention in Hennepin County are children of color,” he said. “We have to ... do everything we can to keep kids out of detention because research shows there are significant harmful effects on juveniles.”
He said that while Freeman talks about keeping kids from getting records, Freeman is talking about low-level, non-felony offenses where the records are private.
Haase said if Freeman “really supported our children,” Freeman would revisit his position on automatic public hearings for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with felonies. Haase said he himself led a bipartisan effort to have judges decide if the hearings should be public. He said Freeman opposed the bill and stopped it from moving forward.
Freeman responded in an e-mail that “the public should know how the courts punish a limited group of juveniles, 16- and 17-year-olds, who are nearly adults, and commit violent felonies. Hiding behind juvenile status at that age while committing violent crimes doesn’t fit with my concept of accountability and transparency.”