My father frequently told me when I came to him with what I described as a problem, “There are no problems, only opportunities.” As an impulsive teenager, I couldn’t appreciate the wisdom of those words. Even as an adult, it took me a while to understand what he was trying to teach me.

The juvenile crime concerns discussed by the Star Tribune Editorial Board in “Real consequences for repeat offenders” (Oct. 16) are not a problem, they are an opportunity. This is not a detention problem. It is a collective opportunity to create collaborative responses founded in evidence-based practices that work to reduce recidivism, increase community safety and improve outcomes for youth in the justice system.

As a retired 22-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, I completely understand the frustration of my law enforcement colleagues with what is known as the revolving door. In fact, it was part of what motivated me to move from law enforcement to the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Quite simply, I got tired of dropping people off at the front door of the justice system and not being able to help them walk back out. Whether we want to recognize it or not, everyone walks back out of those detention center doors at some point. And research tells us that for young people especially, locking them up actually increases the likelihood that they will commit future crimes.

Young people who have been in detention generally have higher rates of recidivism, are more likely to be involved in crime as an adult, do worse in school, suffer from more mental health issues and have less earning potential as adults.

All of that adds up to an opportunity to continue Hennepin County’s history of collaborative problem solving around juvenile justice issues. Through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Hennepin County significantly reduced the number of youth in detention, under supervision and in correctional out of home placement. Those reductions produced better outcomes for young people, their families, the community at large and made all of us safer.

Even so, I recognize the need for secure detention for those youth who pose a significant risk to community safety. In fact, the current population at the Juvenile Detention Center is higher than it has been in three years and includes young people involved in the recent downtown robbery near Target Field that has drawn so much attention.

We don’t need more kids in detention, we need an intermediate step — a place where youth are connected with the services they need to succeed and can’t walk out the door until those needs have been identified and they have been stabilized. This type of assessment is what happens at the Juvenile Supervision Center — and it works.

Data from the Juvenile Supervision Center shows that 86% of the young people they serve do not reoffend within six months. And the No. 1 reason youths are brought to the center is for curfew. Only 2% of the 1,207 visits in 2018 were for fifth-degree assault and only 3% were for auto theft. Of those 1,207 visits, 40% were from police departments other than Minneapolis.

It is correct to say that for some young people this isn’t the right approach and they need something different, but that “something” is not a stay at the Juvenile Detention Center. A Juvenile Assessment Center, similar to those in use in places like Florida and Colorado, is one possibility for that kind of intermediate step.

The fact is, we don’t detain adults for any length of time for auto theft or fifth-degree assault, which is a misdemeanor that actually requires officers issue a citation in lieu of arrest in Minnesota unless certain conditions are met. This is not a detention problem. This is a collective opportunity to build on our history of collaboration in Hennepin County to create new solutions. It requires the entirety of the justice system: law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, judges and corrections to work together with the people we all serve to better aid our young people and our communities.

It does not require a larger population in our Juvenile Detention Center.


Catherine Johnson is the director of the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.