After decades of running their own juvenile facilities, Hennepin and Ramsey counties are exploring the rare move of opening a joint residential treatment center for teenage criminal offenders. But some activists are urging the counties to slow down and rethink their plans.

It’s an effort, county officials say, to save money, upgrade aging facilities and allow them to expand services.

However, Laura LaBlanc of IN Equality, a group advocating for police and court reform, has urged county officials to get more input. She called the idea for a joint facility a “super juvenile prison.”

“No child confined is a child being served,” she said. “We’re saying slow down and let the reforms mature. And ultimately, we’d think they wouldn’t be needing a joint facility.”

A public session on the plans will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Wilder Center in St. Paul, the first of seven such meetings to be held from now through March.

IN Equality says it has collected more than 900 signatures from people opposing the joint facility. LaBlanc, a former social worker who has worked with families whose children were sent to the counties’ facilities, is pushing for more community-based programs.

“I never saw young people benefiting from these experiences, and there’s a significant amount of disruption to their lives,” she said.

County leaders said no final decision has been made on a new facility or whether there will be only one building.

“This is part of the exploratory process,” said Angie Cousins, Hennepin County’s project coordinator. “The interest of both Hennepin and Ramsey county is to provide excellent service to kids.”

For more than a century, courts have ordered juveniles committing felonies to attend the Hennepin County Home School, on a wooded 167-acre site in Minnetonka, and Ramsey County’s Boys Totem Town on an 80-acre site in St. Paul. Both are nonsecure state-licensed facilities.

Not only are the facilities and their infrastructure aging, demand for them and detention centers like Minneapolis’ juvenile jail has declined as more juvenile offenders have been shifted to in-home treatment.

Cousins said that while there’s room for improvement, the facilities will still be needed for safety reasons or for teens who break probation and commit another crime.

“Right now, there is a need,” said Keith Allen, Ramsey County’s project coordinator.

About 40 kids live in three cottages at the Hennepin facility, usually for four to six months. Totem Town, which can accommodate 80, now has about 30 boys.

“We’ve made great strides ... to decrease the number of kids in out-of-home placement, but we could still do better,” Cousins said, adding that it’s not realistic to predict that no kids will need the facilities. “We do have a population of high-risk youth.”

In Hennepin County, girls and boys are kept separate, and juvenile sex offenders attend a different program. Ramsey County’s facility houses only boys in its dormitory, the second-oldest county-owned building.

County officials say that combining efforts could allow them to expand services for kids who are sent to facilities outside the Twin Cities and also save money. Hennepin spends $11 million a year operating its facility, while Ramsey spends $5 million.

Final report next year

Last year, each county’s board approved moving forward with a third planning phase, which includes enlisting an architectural consultant, finalizing the joint facility site and determining costs.

A report is expected by April, followed by a final vote from the county boards.

Until then, Cousins said the counties will continue to meet with the public. The second of the seven community input meetings will be held Sept. 27 at the Minneapolis Urban League. Meetings are being held with county staffers and criminal justice partners. Reforms are moving forward.

“We see that as a parallel process,” she said. “These facilities are very old and were built with an old treatment model. And we can do better for kids.”