Young people in the Twin Cities are committing a growing number of severe and brazen crimes — even as the overall number of juvenile cases has receded below pre-pandemic levels.
Among the most common offenses in Hennepin County: auto thefts, gun possession, assault and robbery. Juveniles charged with homicide have more than doubled since 2021 compared with the three years prior.
"We are not talking about stealing candy bars from stores," said Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt, who has worked closely with kids most of her career and finds the recent intensity of juvenile crimes troubling. "These are indicators that we're in trouble."
Witt and other local leaders are hoping some solutions to that troubling trend may come out of the work of a panel that's been meeting at the State Capitol since this fall and will deliver its recommendations to the Legislature when it reconvenes in early 2024.
The Minnesota Legislature created the Working Group on Youth Interventions to improve how state and county agencies help young people charged with crimes.
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, was chief sponsor of the bill that created the panel to tackle an issue Hennepin County leaders have long wanted state help addressing. Its co-chair is Hennepin County Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde, and Witt is among the panel's more than two dozen members.
The working group is part of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party-led Legislature's response to increased crime statewide since the coronavirus pandemic upended life in 2020. Champion agrees with local leaders that the state has a responsibility to ensure local governments have the resources to help youth caught up in the criminal justice system.
"Sometimes young people make boneheaded decisions," Champion said. "A setback can also be an opportunity for a comeback. How do we identify solutions that bring them back into law-abiding behavior?"
More serious offenses
Sheriff Witt noted that data from the Hennepin County Attorney's Office shows the number of felonies involving juveniles has risen dramatically since the pandemic.
Since 2018, about half of the juvenile cases referred to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office result in criminal charges. Roughly one-third of those not charged enter a diversion program, and most of the remaining cases are sent back to law enforcement for further investigation.
Witt said she is not sure why law enforcement officers are presenting fewer cases for prosecution than before the pandemic. The number of Ramsey County juvenile cases have followed a similar trend.
"We have to ask why," Witt said, noting that a variety of factors have impacted policing in recent years. "Talk to anyone in law enforcement, we are not seeing that trend."
The Hennepin County data also reveals a disproportionate number of juvenile cases, nearly two-thirds, involve Black youth and nearly 70% of cases involve males. About 14.5% of county residents are Black.
A fragmented system
The legislative working group is focused on youth who are already in the criminal justice system, because they've been convicted of a crime or entered a diversion program. Juveniles are then referred to local departments of corrections, human services or child protection.
Those agencies order therapeutic and rehabilitative interventions like counseling, in-patient mental health treatment or detention. Members of the panel say those systems need to collaborate, but struggle to do so, because of licensing differences and privacy rules.
More importantly, most communities don't have the capacity to assist the growing number of kids who need help. Many independent providers scaled back or closed during the pandemic, and government services scattered across the state largely lack staff and resources.
That means kids in trouble may be sent hours away from their families for treatment or be stuck in a hospital or detention facility for months while they wait for a spot to open up.
"We are getting this perspective from all over the state. The needs are the same, but the scales are different," said Lunde, who leads the Hennepin County Board Law, Safety and Justice Committee. "This is about a continuum of care."
Panel co-chair Al Godfrey, field services director for the state Department of Corrections, says 40 years in the field taught him that juvenile justice needs to be nimble. He encouraged the panel to look beyond traditional treatment facilities and find creative ways to provide in-home or community-based mental health services.
"The corrections system was never designed to be a mental health care facility for those kids, but they are ending up there," Godfrey said. "We don't want to throw a lot of dollars at something that may not solve the needs of the kids in the system."
Yet, Witt and others in law enforcement see an ongoing need for more traditional group homes and detention facilities — several of which have closed in recent years. When kids are in crisis, Witt said, sometimes the best option is to get them out of bad situations.
"Kids that are living in chaos, that are living in survival mode, how receptive are they going to be to any kind of rehabilitation?" Witt said. "We need these facilities. Bring the resources to them. It doesn't have to be punitive."
The working group spent four meetings since September, with another scheduled Dec. 13, compiling testimony and data to better understand problems with the system. The difficult work starts in January, when the 26-member group drafts its recommendations to the Legislature and seeks state lawmakers' support.
The Legislature reconvenes in mid-February for a session focused on infrastructure and policy changes after completing a two-year budget last May.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, agrees that the state's juvenile justice system needs improvements. But he's disappointed the panel didn't include members without a direct stake in the outcome.
"There is a sincere concern that stakeholders will protect their own turf," Limmer said, noting that youth intervention programs get strong bipartisan backing. "If you want true accountability, then you need an independent party doing this analysis. We also need to have measurable goals."
Lunde, Godfrey and Witt are optimistic the group can both find a consensus on needed changes and persuade state lawmakers to approve them. There's a lot riding on the outcome.
"I think people are tired of a lot of talking and no action," said Witt. "We better get it right."