For more than a century, judges sentenced troubled boys to Boys Totem Town for rehabilitation away from their families and communities.

Now Totem Town is closing its doors in St. Paul's Battle Creek neighborhood, a result of declining juvenile crime and the consensus among prosecutors, judges and elected officials that troubled teens do better when they receive treatment at home and in their communities.

Citing the same factors, Hennepin County is closing its girls program at the County Home School juvenile residential facility in Minnetonka. The boys program, while also declining in numbers, will remain open.

"The evidence was showing us detention was not a helpful intervention for our young people," said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter.

Totem Town will close in August after the last six boys housed there finish their programs. The number of teens charged with crimes by the Ramsey County attorney has dropped by half in a decade's time, to about 1,500 in 2017, and the number of youth sentenced to Totem Town has plummeted to 31 last year.

"It's a national trend, the reduced reliance on out-of-home placement in general," said Catherine Johnson, director of the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Currently we have three girls in our program."

A surge of research on adolescent brain development and childhood trauma over the past two decades has changed how the criminal justice system views and treats youthful offenders across the country and here in Minnesota.

"We try to be very trauma-informed and mindful of the fact that adolescent brains are still developing well into their 20s," said Hennepin County District Judge David L. Piper, who oversees the juvenile division.

That research, coupled with data comparing community vs. out-of-home placements, has prompted the move away from places like Totem Town. "Community-based alternatives are more likely to return kids to law-abiding behavior," Piper said.

Another factor: Confining youth at a cost of about $250 a day wasn't making communities any safer, said Michelle Finstad, deputy director of Ramsey County Community Corrections.

Recidivism rates for troubled teens who enrolled in quality community-based programs are as low as 6%, vs. 20% to 30% for teens in residential placements such as Totem Town, Finstad said.

"We feel we are doing a better job protecting public safety than ever before," she said.

Rehabilitation is the goal

The Ramsey County Board made the decision to close Totem Town, but it's taken more than a decade to build and grow community-based programs and to enact change in the juvenile justice system.

When the county embarked around 2005 on its mission to move boys out of Totem Town, more than 3,000 Ramsey County teens were being detained each year either there or at the pretrial juvenile detention facility in downtown St. Paul. Boys of color made up a disproportionate number.

"It seemed that more kids were going into detention than going to college," Carter said. "That was a problem."

Changes that made it possible to close Totem Town began with the way police interacted with teens, which cases prosecutors decided to charge and the type of sentences that judges handed down.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and Chief District Court Judge John Guthmann said last week they're pleased with the changes. The county's overall juvenile detention numbers, pre- and post-trial, are now around 800 a year.

"There is harm done to kids when they are locked up," Choi said. "The goal should be to rehabilitate. It's not about punishment."

Guthmann lauded the county's investment in programs that help kids and address public safety concerns. "Ramsey County has funded community-based alternatives to confinement," he said. "As a result, the number of confinements have dropped."

Community programming includes behavior and chemical treatment, mental health services, counseling and educational programs. Several programs are culturally and gender specific.

Some of the most successful community programs collaborate with families and understand that kids will make mistakes, said Kim Stubblefield, Ramsey County's assistant division director for youth services. Often the simplest goals set — catching the bus on time, making new friends — can make a big difference.

"They have to hang in there with kids, including through behavior problems and attendance issues," she said.

Support, not surveillance

For the first time ever this year, Ramsey County allocated $250,000 for individualized programs to help youth offenders. The county has helped families embroiled in the juvenile justice system join the YMCA, provided emergency rental assistance and even sprung for 26 sessions of play therapy for one child.

Probation officers also are working differently.

"We are no longer a division that provides surveillance. We provide support and connect them to services in the community," Stubblefield said.

Even with all the changes, a number of violent teen offenders will still be sentenced to residential programs. Ramsey County sends offenders to Hennepin and Dakota County residential programs, inpatient drug and chemical treatment programs, a sex offender program outstate and to the state's juvenile correction facility in Red Wing.

It costs the county about $5.5 million to operate Totem Town, with most of that funding going to salaries. Its staff of 42 will be transferred to other positions in community corrections or may pivot to community-based programs, said Community Corrections Director John Klavins.

As for the future of Totem Town's lush campus, about 72 acres just off Lower Afton Road, that's yet to be determined. Choi said he hopes that some of the future tax revenue generated by the site will go toward programs that help troubled teens. That way, the property will continue to serve youth in new ways.

"It won't be just a Ramsey County decision," Carter said. "The community will continue to be involved."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804