With little fanfare at the end of 2018, Congress reauthorized a major juvenile justice bill for the first time since 2002. You can bet Sarah Davis didn’t miss the moment. As associate director for Minneapolis’ Legal Rights Center (LRC), Davis says the worst place for at-risk youth is in our court system. Instead, she champions a focus on brain science, collaborations between families and schools, and allowing youth to take ownership of their actions through restorative practices that also keep our communities safer. Passionate and determined to effect change since she served as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow, Davis attended law school in Boston, then worked as a public defender before joining LRC in 2012.
Q: Why was reauthorization of the juvenile justice bill so significant?
A: It was a bipartisan bill that passed with unanimous support in both the House and the Senate, which feels like a really big deal in our current political climate. It includes a requirement that states collect data on racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system and establish a plan to address these disparities, a stronger ban on holding children in adult jails, and a seven-day limit on detention for children who violate a court order related to offenses such as curfew or truancy.
Q: What might Minnesota racial data reveal?
A: Across Minnesota, black children are more than 5½ times more likely to be arrested than their white peers, and American Indian children are arrested at almost 3½ times the rate of their white peers. In Hennepin County, the disparities are even worse, with black children arrested at over 7½ times the rate of white children, and American Indian children arrested at more than 6½ times the rate of their white peers. These disparities cannot be explained by differences in behavior. Research shows that children of all racial and ethnic identities engage in the underlying behaviors at very similar rates. It’s the outcome that’s different.
Q: What are the effects of those kids’ — and all kids’ — contact with the judicial system?
A: People are really surprised when they learn about the significant impact Minnesota justice system involvement has on a child’s future. For example, under Minnesota law, a child who is cited for a fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor citation for something like a fight at school, can lead to a seven-year disqualification from being able to pass a Department of Human Services background study and that is true even if the child is never charged or convicted in court. A felony theft charge, based simply on the value of the item taken, can lead to a 15-year disqualification. That means they can’t work or volunteer with children, the elderly or the sick, or in a licensed facility serving those populations. This includes food or janitorial service. And it applies exactly the same way to children as it does adults. A 10-year-old is treated exactly the same as a 50-year-old.
Q: How do you convince policymakers that court is a bad place for kids?
A: We have be willing to take a step back to look at the evidence-based research that shows justice system involvement does not lead to good outcomes for youth. The deeper youth go into the system, the worse the outcomes, which ultimately has a negative impact on public safety. And it is hugely expensive. We have to be willing to have this conversation with state and local policymakers, and also with our family, friends and communities.
Q: On the other hand, you’ve been buoyed by an increase in restorative and “diversionary” practices. Why are they preferable?
A: Restorative practices are indigenous practices, grounded in a way of being in community that is very different from our retributive justice system. It’s about doing things with people, rather than to them or for them, which is a transformative shift in mind-set. There’s a common misconception that restorative practices are soft and don’t lead to accountability. In fact, restorative practices lead to meaningful, supported accountability. Asking a youth to sit with someone they’ve harmed, take ownership of their actions and be accountable for their role in repairing harm is much harder, and much more impactful, than writing a court-ordered apology letter or picking up trash on the side of the road.
Q: Might you give an example of how this practice works?
A: I’m thinking of a young boy, a child of color cited for a school-based offense. He is a special education student, in middle school at the time. Being cited by the police was really scary for the child and his family. Instead of being sent to court, he was diverted and offered the opportunity to participate in a restorative Family Group Conference. The child, family and school engaged with a restorative facilitator, identifying the child’s strengths and discussing shared goals of safety and future success, and accountability for everyone. Now the parents are deeply partnered with the school. This would not have been the outcome if this had gone to court.
Q: Your work is challenging. What do you do to relax and tune out?
A: I try hard to stay tuned in, even when the work is difficult or overwhelming. As a white woman with a law degree, I could tune out in a way that many of the youth I work with never could, as they encounter systemic racism at every turn. That said, my family keeps me grounded and brings me so much joy. My wife and I have a 1-year-old son and his smile and laughter are contagious.