We who work daily to mitigate the harms of the juvenile criminal legal system are disappointed with the front-page Oct. 17 article "Crime — but no punishment." Star Tribune readers deserve a more complete story.
The current juvenile criminal legal system is a pernicious maze with too many paths in and too few paths out. Alternative paths that improve youth outcomes must be created.
For example, there must be age-appropriate routes to mental health and addiction services so adolescents can get back on track to healthy, productive lives. Instead, the current system's standard responses of probation and incarceration increase the likelihood that young people will commit another crime.
We sympathize with Tina Thomas, the grandmother of the accused teen in the story. She is asking for help, as do many people with family members suffering addictions. We also stand with the Uber driver and other victims who have been harmed and want to know what will happen to make things right.
A more healing path for Ms. Thomas, her grandson and the Uber driver is one that asks those responsible for harm to actively make things right. This can be especially transformative for young people — when all who are impacted discuss their varied needs. They may talk about which systems or institutions have failed each of them and therefore also share responsibility for the harm. This can be in person or through mediated communication, and will result in a mutually agreed upon accountability plan.
The new process would also honor Thomas' pain and be honest with her. Punishment and exclusion will not help her grandson. In fact, it denies him the right to learn and grow from his mistakes, and to heal from his addictions and trauma. Nor does punishment effectively deter or prevent young people from causing harm. We have an entire industry that warehouses young people and whose "treatment" frequently perpetuates abuse and more trauma.
Further, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi's office has good reason to believe the new approach will be more effective. Other jurisdictions have taken a similar approach, and the results clearly show that young people diverted into community-led restorative justice processes (including for violent offenses) reoffend at half the rate as those whose cases go through the traditional system.
Developmental psychology confirms that this type of meaningful accountability leads more frequently to remorse, learning and growth. On the other hand, when judges or other institutional actors impose consequences on young people, that process often engenders stigma, defiance and disconnection, thus leading to the high recidivism in our current system.
Conversely, claims that the current system is "transparent and accountable" are empty and unexamined. Accountability is not synonymous with punishment. We call on the community to continually demand more meaningful accountability, including of systems that repeatedly fail our children and communities.
It is reckless and irresponsible to refer to our young people as dangerous and needing to be punished. That says more about who we are than who they are. It reveals a discriminatory system that transfers rather than transforms pain. It transfers pain through a punitive culture that criminalizes poverty, homelessness and addiction, and normalizes racism.
This new pathway — the collaborative review table that refers children to the people who are most able to provide meaningful accountability — seeks to transform the pain by creating an equitable space for examining the behavior and establishing a deeper understanding of the root causes of the behavior. It humanizes the challenges that brought one to cause the harm and creates a plan for healing.
When we work together to uncover these factors, we all benefit and we can all take responsibility in raising our youths. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. We cannot turn away yet still cry for accountability. The separate juvenile justice system exists for the core reason that children hold a special place in society. We invite you to participate in creating a new path for all our young people. Your time and investment, especially in research and community-backed solutions, will let them know they matter. Let us lead with love.
Kara Beckman is senior evaluator at the Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Kristy Synder is LEAP program director at Project for Pride in Living. Raj Sethuraju is associate professor at Metro State University. Emily Terrell is president of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition. Beth Holger is president of the Link. Malaika Eban is director of community strategy at the Legal Rights Center.