Faced with rising concerns over youth crime, Minnesota lawmakers have passed the most significant changes in a generation to the state's troubled juvenile justice system.
An expansive public safety bill approved just after midnight Tuesday morning seeks to reduce juvenile crime by creating a new, statewide office that would encourage alternative approaches to holding youth accountable without sentencing them in courts. The measures would also pour tens of millions of dollars into local youth intervention programs designed to steer children away from the criminal justice system.
Lawmakers reached an agreement on a proposal that would provide a second chance to minors sentenced to life in prison without parole — a practice widely condemned as inhumane by child advocates. A newly created state board would have the power to release inmates into community supervision programs such as probation if they have already served at least 15 years.
Taken together, the package of changes could lead to a profound shift in the way juvenile justice cases are handled, with a transfer of power in some cases from overwhelmed juvenile courts and probation departments to community members. They would encourage the spread of nontraditional methods of holding kids accountable — such as group-offender dialogues and family conferences — that have been shown to be effective in reducing re-offense rates among youths.
The legislative package reflects a growing consensus among county prosecutors, law enforcement and youth justice advocates that the traditional court system is failing to deliver on its promise of rehabilitating troubled youth.
"These changes are absolutely transformative," said Rep. Sandra Feist, the DFL vice chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee and main architect of the juvenile justice legislation. "They are about wresting power to some degree from local judges and prosecutors and entrusting it with our communities."
The proposals come after a Star Tribune investigative series that found deep flaws in Minnesota's patchwork system of juvenile justice. Across the state, counties are failing to intervene early enough to help troubled youth, despite pleas from many parents. State oversight is minimal, and the quality of youth rehabilitation programs varies drastically from county to county.
The most ambitious measure creates a state Office of Restorative Practices for promoting alternative, community-based approaches to youth crime. Such programs typically spare offenders from a criminal record if they participate in dialogues with victims and others affected by their actions. Some Minnesota counties already offer restorative programs for youth, but they are often poorly funded and lack consistent standards, the Star Tribune found.
The new office will encourage every county in the state to have at least one restorative justice initiative for youths through a system of state grants. The goal of these programs would be to "create meaningful outcomes," including addressing the needs of victims and the underlying causes of criminal behavior. Eligibility for the programs would be determined by local advisory committees. Parents, youths, school administrators, county prosecutors and local law enforcement would all have a say in how the programs are designed, under the law.
"Too often, the criminal legal system just focuses on punishment," said Justin Terrell, executive director of the Minnesota Justice Research Center. "But expanding restorative outcomes and making it a priority for the system means that you're addressing the harm that's been caused and that people can actually move on from that harm — and that helps create safe communities."
The legislation stops short of mandating restorative approaches, which means local prosecutors would still retain the power to charge children and adolescents in the traditional court system. The measures also do not address longstanding problems with Minnesota's extended youth probation system, which has funneled hundreds of teenagers to prisons — often for technical violations rather than new crimes, a Star Tribune analysis found.
Some Republicans have criticized the juvenile justice provisions as overly lenient and lacking in specificity.
Rep. Walter Hudson, a Republican from Albertville and member of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy committee, said the bill lacked a "well-defined definition" of restorative justice, as well as clear metrics for gauging outcomes.
"If I tell you that I'm going to build a police station, then I don't have to go into details because we all understand what a police station is," Hudson said. "But if I tell you I'm going to open an office of restorative justice, I have no idea what that means, and neither does the public. And so there needs to be a more drawn-out, detailed plan of accountability."
In an interview, Feist described the bill's passage as "a miracle," in part because restorative practices are poorly understood and are sometimes perceived as soft on crime. She and other DFL lawmakers overcame this resistance by pointing to jurisdictions where alternative approaches are typically more rigorous than sentences meted out by judges — and more effective at reducing recidivism.
Proponents lauded the achievements in Colorado, which has passed the most laws supporting restorative justice practices of any state in the nation. In that state, more than 1,300 minors have been sent to restorative justice programs over the past seven years. Fewer than one in 10 committed another crime within a year after completion, according to a state study.
Pete Lee, a former Colorado state senator and architect of reforms there, played a behind-the-scenes role in crafting Minnesota's legislation, reviewing early drafts and suggesting revisions.
"Minnesota has the potential to set a national trend, because this bill will create the infrastructure for a robust transformation of the juvenile justice system," Lee said.
Among those who spoke out in favor of the changes was Kendall Hughes, a retired prison chaplain and founder of a restorative justice group in southeast Minnesota.
Hughes recounted in testimony his disappointment with the criminal justice system after he was stabbed a dozen times in the back and neck by an inmate at a federal prison in Colorado in 2001. Hughes said he was never given an opportunity to make a victim impact statement in court, and his assailant did not receive help for his mental health problems. Instead, the inmate was placed in solitary confinement for eight years, where his condition deteriorated, Hughes said.
The experience motivated Hughes to launch the Rochester-based nonprofit Three Rivers Restorative Justice, which brings juveniles charged with crimes face-to-face with their victims. Through group dialogues, youth acknowledge the impact of their decisions on victims and the community, while agreeing on a plan of action to repair the harm. Since 2019, the group has handled more than 60 juvenile cases in a five-county area of southeast Minnesota, with the vast majority of youth never reoffending.
"I think we're going to see, 10 years from now, almost all juvenile cases go through this restorative justice process, which studies have shown to be consistently more satisfying, less damaging, and cheaper than the traditional system," Hughes said.
The biennial budget includes $5 million in funding toward establishing at least five residential treatment homes in Ramsey County to serve teens with serious behavioral or mental health issues who have been found guilty of delinquency offenses.
"We are starved for more options," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, noting judges often lament not having a place to send troubled youth who need intensive therapy. The centers would help alleviate that dearth of placement facilities by allowing minors to seek treatment in their own neighborhoods, close to family support networks.
A long-sought bill to abolish juvenile life without parole will make Minnesota the 28th state to outlaw the practice — more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it excessive and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
Lawmakers had yet to amend state law to bring Minnesota into compliance. The change offers most prisoners serving sentences of 15 years or more for juvenile offenses the chance to appear before a review board, which will determine whether they can safely be released. Approximately 40 people would be eligible for review once the panel is up and running next summer, said Perry Moriearty, a University of Minnesota law professor.
"We have a lot of people sitting in prison now who've been there for decades for juvenile offenses," Moriearty said, and who "have done everything they can possibly do to show that they're ready to come home."