In 2017, a pair of teenagers were caught shoplifting at Eden Prairie Center, the bustling mall in the southwest metro suburb.

Mall security was called, then police, who confronted the 14-year-old girls for their crime.

But instead of issuing a ticket, they offered the teens an alternative: The police department’s Juvenile Diversion program, which spares young first-time offenders aged 10-21 accused of minor crimes from becoming mired in the court system. Instead, it makes them meet with the people affected by their actions.

Since its inception in 2006 through the end of February, the Eden Prairie Police Department’s diversion program for minors caught on the wrong side of the law has conducted 500 family conferences covering 677 cases involving 958 first-time offenders.

Police say the restorative justice program is yielding positive results in Eden Prairie: Only 12 percent of participants have reoffended (and only with minor crimes) after participating in the program. The rate remains well below the national average of 20 percent.

The program is headed by Randy Thompson, who served the Eden Prairie Police Department as an officer, school liaison officer and sergeant during his 20 years on the force. Since 2006 he has worked as a school guidance counselor at Eden Prairie’s Central Middle School. Thompson said the program is based on restorative justice, a criminal justice model that focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation.

“This concept focuses on the offenders’ behavior and how they can repair the harm they have caused,” Thompson said. “In every case the offender must complete a contract that is created at a meeting which involves the offender, victim and others involved. It is believed that by allowing offenders to meet face to face with those they offend that true reparations can be made for the offense, thereby allowing the victim to return to a ‘restored’ state.”

The face-to-face meetings are facilitated by Thompson and last about 90 minutes. At the end of the conference the offender leaves with a contract in hand and a deadline of when it must be completed, Thompson said.

About 75 offenders go through the program each year, with about 85 percent of them being shoplifters. Other offenses include damage to property, minor assaults and burglaries. The victims must agree to be part of the process and attend the diversion meeting. The juvenile’s contract may include both restitution and community service.

Diversion, however, is a one-time offering and juveniles are warned that if they reoffend, they will need to appear in Hennepin County juvenile court.

According to Eden Prairie police, in the case of the shoplifting teenagers, the girls and their parents met with a representative from the store where they were accused of shoplifting, along with one of the EPPD’s juvenile diversion officers. As they discussed the incident, one of the girls said she was struggling with depression. As a result, her diversion contract included a commitment to attend therapy sessions.

Despite the fact that she initially told her parents that the shoplifting incident was isolated, the second girl said that she had actually stolen from stores in other malls. As a result, her contract included restitution and letters of apology to various stores.

“Through the diversion process, the girl’s family became aware of a much larger theft problem which may not have been revealed had she gone through the court system instead,” police said.