A new initiative aims to reduce stark racial disparities in the thousands of cases heard in Hennepin County's juvenile justice system each year.

Advocates say the measure is warranted and overdue: In 2018, nearly 75% of the 5,500 juvenile crime cases sent to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office for review involved youth of color. Black youth, who made up 61% of the cases prosecuted, accounted for only 22% of the county population of 10- to 17-year-olds.

While the county has made significant strides in reducing the number of juveniles who get sentenced to jail, members of the new Youth Justice Council aim to reduce the gap and increase community involvement.

"The juvenile court bench is excited about this work and is fully committed to forging strong partnerships with the community and court stakeholders to create an equitable, fair, and effective justice system," said a statement by Judge Mark Kappelhoff, one of the chairs and Assistant Presiding Judge of Hennepin County's juvenile court.

The council includes community representatives, members from the county attorney's office, community corrections, police, school and human services. It was created as a result of a comprehensive assessment conducted by the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice. The county contracted with the group to conduct a system assessment and provide recommendations to improve the system for youth and their families.

The county received the 78-page report last year, which listed 21 recommendations ranging from enhanced diversion options to individual case plans for defendants.

"As a community leader I value shared meaning making with local community members and relevant stakeholders experiencing the day-to-day realities of the harmful impact of racism that was intentionally built through a history of inequality, discrimination, and implicit bias," said a statement from Dr. Brittany Lewis, CEO of Research in Action and Senior Research Associate at the Center of Urban and Regional Affairs and a chair of the council.

The council held its first monthly meeting last week and developed an initial priority focus list. It included more opportunities for families to participate in pretrial and probation decisions, more alternatives to detention and out of home placement and expedited court hearings.

In the assessment received by the county, 61% of the cases charged by the county attorney's office involved a Black, Hispanic or Native American child. White children were charged 23% of the time.

"The Hennepin County juvenile justice system has been working toward a more equitable system for many years now, and the community has been involved in that work along the way. The Youth Justice Council will take this community involvement a step further, by working with those who have been most impacted by the system to learn how we can and need to change the system," said a statement from Jerald Moore, the third chair of the council and the county's juvenile probation division manager. "From there, we'll closely partner with these same community members to develop the policies and procedures needed to reduce disparities and enhance community benefits."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465