As the nation's eyes fall upon Minnesota once again for the senseless and brutal killing of another Black man at the hands of the state, we must recognize that the dehumanizing and sometimes lethal treatment of Black, brown and Indigenous Minnesotans does not begin with a traffic stop.
It begins much earlier. It begins when we haul 10-year-olds out of the classroom and into juvenile court for being "disruptive;" when we force them to shuffle into courtrooms in metal handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains; when we strip search and visually inspect them in the bowels of a detention center; and when we lock them alone for hours in windowless cinder block cells.
It begins when we condemn 16-year-olds to die in prison or saddle them with sentences that are the equivalent. While these cruel practices are not reserved for children of color, our children of color are subjected to them most often.
At least 32 states ban the indiscriminate shackling of children. Others are rapidly restricting the strip searches and solitary confinement of children. But not Minnesota. While the state does not keep statistics on the use of these practices by race, the racial landscape of Minnesota's juvenile justice system tells the story.
Children of color are 28% of the juvenile population in Minnesota but are 50% of the children arrested, 59% of those petitioned to juvenile court, 65% of the children adjudicated delinquent and 76% of the children tried as adults — disparities for which crime commission rates cannot begin to account.
That the physical restraints used by the juvenile justice system fall most heavily and most often upon the children who are funneled through it is self-evident.
When it comes to Minnesota's harshest prison sentences, the story is even bleaker. Children cannot vote, sign a contract, serve on a jury or buy tobacco, but they can be condemned to die in prison in Minnesota.
Even as 25 states as diverse as Arkansas, California, Ohio, Utah and Wyoming have banned death-in-prison sentences for children — and even as others such as Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin have passed or are passing laws to give every incarcerated child an opportunity for release after either 15 or 20 years — Minnesota continues to send children to prison for 30, 60 and even 90 years.
And here too, the overwhelming majority of these children are Black, brown or Indigenous. Of the 95 people currently serving life or long-term prison sentences in Minnesota for offenses they committed as children, 76% are people of color. 51% are Black, 12% are Indigenous and 9% are Latinx. This, in a state that was still 90% white when most of these sentences were imposed.
What these statistics do not begin to capture, however, is the profound trauma that being shackled, strip-searched, sent to solitary confinement, and sentenced to life in prison as a child can inflict. Two of us know this trauma intimately, because we lived it. We know the indignity of wearing handcuffs and leg irons, of being strip searched, and of being locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day before your feet even reach all the way to the floor.
We know the piercing hopelessness of being sentenced to life in prison as a child, of being told that you may die inside the fortress of barbed wire and metal bars you have just entered, and of eating, sleeping and showering among grown men before you have even started shaving.
And, devastatingly, one of us also knows the endless torment of being subjected to all of this for something you did not do.
Why has Minnesota not joined other states in banning these practices? Not for a lack of opportunity. Bills seeking to end shackling and life without release sentences for children have come before the Legislature every year since 2013, but have never made it to the governor's desk. And unless the Legislature acts soon this year will be no different.
HF 922 and HF 947, which would end shackling, strip searches and solitary confinement for children, received unanimous bipartisan support in the House, but only the shackling provision has made it to the Senate floor. HF 416, a bill banning death-in-prison sentences for children and aligning Minnesota with several other states in providing review after 15 years, did not even make it to the Senate.
The Senate's refusal to hear this bill is all the more egregious because it would amend a sentencing law that has now been unconstitutional for nine years. Twenty eight states were required to amend comparable laws after a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared them "cruel and unusual." Minnesota is one of just four that have not acted.
Excuses for the Legislature's failure to act are many, but they all boil down to this: Would the state of Minnesota summon the moral will to end these inhumane practices if the children subjected to them were disproportionately white?
We all know the answer.
• • •
In 2003, at age 16, Myon Burrell was sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years for murder and attempted murder. He has adamantly maintained his innocence. In December 2020, following a report from an independent panel of legal experts questioning the integrity of Burrell's conviction and recommending his release from prison, the Minnesota Board of Pardons commuted his sentence and he was released that night.
Elizer Darris was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 15. As the result of his own advocacy, Elizer's life sentence was reduced to 17 years by the Minnesota Supreme Court. He was released in 2016 and now serves as the co-executive director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, was appointed by the governor in 2020 to the State Board of Public Defense, and serves on the advisory board of the Attorney General's Conviction Review Unit.
Perry Moriearty is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. She and her students represented Burrell before the Minnesota Board of Pardons and represent several others in Minnesota who were sentenced to life without release as children.