Dozens of protesters rallied Tuesday against plans for a juvenile facility for teenage criminal offenders in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, saying they preferred to place the youths in community-based programs instead.
About 100 people disrupted a meeting in Richfield, holding signs with slogans such as “No Cages for Kids.” The meeting ended with several people yelling, ripping up poster boards and chanting “Foster us, don’t criminalize us.”
“We know this program doesn’t work,” said Tonja Honsey, who helped start a local campaign called Youth Prison Blockaders. “The systems are old. We need to start taking care of these youth.”
Tuesday’s meeting was the fourth of seven community input meetings the counties are holding on the proposed joint facility. County leaders say that no final decision has been made on a new facility, where it would be located or whether there would be only one building.
A final vote from both county boards isn’t expected until April, when a final report will be released. The next public meeting will be held in January, followed by ones in February and March.
The joint facility would replace the Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka and Ramsey County’s Boys Totem Town in St. Paul, which Honsey’s organization and other activists want shut down in favor of more community-based programs for young offenders. Activists have referred to the counties’ residential treatment centers as “super juvenile prisons” or “youth prisons.”
But Chet Cooper, Hennepin County community corrections director, said that’s a major misconception. He said that the nonsecure facilities, which provide therapy and behavioral treatment, are needed to help a small group of teens who have committed violent or sexual assaults make their way back to the community.
“We’ve heard loud and clear that a big infrastructure, prison-like environment ... is not what the community wants and that’s not what we want,” Cooper said of community input. “We are not a youth prison ... we are a treatment facility.”
For more than a century, courts have ordered juveniles committing felonies to attend the Home School and Totem Town. Both state-licensed facilities have aging infrastructure and have seen demand for their services decline as more juvenile offenders have been shifted to in-home treatment.
Cooper said that it isn’t realistic to get rid of such facilities just yet. “Public safety is still No. 1,” he said. “We still have a small number of our youth that need a facility.” But he said that community input so far has resulted in helping the counties scale down plans and aim for a campuslike model with no more than 100 teens.
IN Equality, which advocates for police and court reform, in November presented the Ramsey County Board with 1,000 postcards signed by people opposing the joint facility. The group is concerned about the disproportionate number of children of color who are sentenced, as well as Hennepin County’s 49 percent recidivism rate.
In Ramsey County, District Judge Patrick Diamond is one of the juvenile court judges who see the same teens return.
“It’s not working,” he said of a large residential treatment center. “It’s frustrating at times there aren’t more and better alternatives available.”