Minneapolis police are making a significant new push to steer troubled young people into a juvenile diversion program and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Police are targeting children and teenagers who have been arrested or cited for low-level, misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting and disorderly conduct, and then connecting them to services.

"We're really trying to give these kids an opportunity to be kids, make a mistake and not have it held against them for the rest of their lives," said Cmdr. Bruce Folkens, who oversees the special crimes investigations division that includes juvenile crime.

The renewed program comes as the Hennepin County attorney's office is trying to standardize diversion programs across the county, so a Minneapolis teenager arrested in a suburb would be eligible for the same diversion program available in his or her home city.

Under the new Minneapolis program, a sergeant in the juvenile unit will review cases before an official citation is written. The officer studies the criminal history of the offender, the type of offense, whether it is a first-time offense and other criteria.

After an offender is deemed a good fit for the program, he or she is sent to Restorative Justice Community Action, a group that sets up community conferences with the youths to help teach the ramifications of his or her actions. For instance, a young offender might be asked to apologize to the owner of the store where he or she stole merchandise, Folkens said.

One recent morning during a diversion meeting at North Regional Library, six people sat in a circle with a box of tissues in the middle. The group was made up of the offending teenage boy, his girlfriend, his mother, two retired school officials and a coordinator from Restorative Justice. They were there because the 16-year-old had stolen a school walkie-talkie as a prank and now faced a theft charge.

"I wish I didn't do it," he told the group.

The young man was there to discuss the impact of his crime and to craft an agreement about what he would do to atone for his actions.

With the help of the group, the rising junior offered to write letters of apology to his assistant principal and his mother, to do some volunteer work and to apply for a job. He had to report back to the group in a month with his progress.

"I'm hoping that he learns from this process that this is not a road he wants to walk down," the boy's mother said.

Youths who successfully complete the program will have their case dropped and will escape without a blemish on their criminal records.

A conviction for shoplifting or theft can have a lasting impact on a young person, such as when they want to apply for a job, Folkens said.

"This is a way to really keep them out of the system," said Cynthia Prosek, executive director of Restorative Justice Community Action.

Seeking uniformity

Other metro cities that have had diversion programs include Bloomington, Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove.

Despite the benefits of having programs in several different areas, a 2013 report contracted by the Hennepin County attorney's office found that eligibility criteria vary significantly among the agencies and there was no countywide coordination.

The Hennepin County attorney's office, which has had its own diversion program since 1993, is in the process of working in a number of the communities to be more involved in their programs and help make them more consistent.

"You go to a Target in Medina and you try to steal something and you're picked up by the cops, or you go to Cub Foods in north Minneapolis on Broadway and you steal something, I want to make sure to the extent we can that both of those kids are treated the same," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

The report found no racial disparity in who was charged, but it did find that fewer minorities completed the diversion program. Freeman said a significant reason members of minority groups lagged in completing the program was because they couldn't be reached.

The county attorney's office started recruiting volunteers to call and sometimes visit the juveniles' homes to get in contact with those eligible for the diversion program. Since the use of volunteers, the number of children of color who have entered the program has increased significantly, Freeman said.

Minneapolis police are now facing a similar problem. One of the challenges is reaching out to children who are eligible for the program, Folkens said. Often they report their addresses and phone numbers, but both can change quickly, making it hard to connect.

From October to February, Minneapolis police have referred 72 young people to Restorative Justice, but only slightly more than 50 percent have been enrolled, Prosek said. Out of those referred, 57 were black, and of those, only 20 enrolled, with 22 not being able to be reached.

"Diversion is a really good thing for these kids," Folkens said. "It really helps them to make better decisions in the future and understand the ramifications of the decisions that they are making."

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495 Twitter: @snicolenorfleet