In a rare moment of bipartisanship, members of the Minnesota House have agreed on something — the sanctity of childhood.
Last week, House Republicans and Democrats unanimously got behind new bills (HF 922 and HF 947) that will inject some humanity back into Minnesota's repressive juvenile justice system by ending shackling, strip searches and solitary confinement for juveniles, eliminating public hearings for older teens, and raising the lower age of delinquency to 13, among other measures.
These reforms are long overdue. In the 1980s and '90s, fear of juvenile "superpredators" and an imminent juvenile crime wave — neither of which materialized — led Minnesota to repudiate an age-old rehabilitative commitment to juvenile delinquents and move policy in a more punitive direction. The harsh turn in juvenile justice dissolved the protections historically afforded to children, causing great harm — especially to children who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), who are now grossly overrepresented in arrests and detentions.
In the 1980s, Minnesota opened to the public delinquency hearings of juveniles 16 or older who were charged with a felony. The proposed new laws will follow the lead of many other states and right this wrong. No 16-year-old who is charged and found "not guilty" should have that record pop up every time someone googles his or her name.
Young people who carry that stigma encounter social obstacles that can disqualify them from obtaining meaningful work, earning a high school diploma or college degree, joining the military or participating in civic life.
The proposed bills promote alternatives to arrest that can divert young people away from the justice system in the first place. Some of Minnesota's 417 police departments offer juvenile diversion already, but others do not, resulting in an uneven system of justice by geography. The law would empower all jurisdictions to use community-based alternatives to arrest. This saves taxpayers money and also helps police build community trust — a commodity in short supply in Minnesota right now.
The most basic assumption undergirding juvenile justice holds that juveniles do not possess the same criminal intent as adults because juveniles are not as intellectually, morally or socially developed. Children as young as 10 who commit unlawful acts are labeled delinquent in Minnesota (not as criminals). But think about that — as young as 10. That's fifth grade, elementary school.
Some 75% of juvenile arrests in Minnesota are for nonviolent offenses, often acts that are only unlawful because of one's age — truancy, curfew violations, running away, and underage possession of alcohol and tobacco. The new law would raise the delinquency age to 13, which is still younger than what national juvenile justice experts call for and the threshold set in many countries like China, Germany, Somalia and Russia. But it's an important step in the right direction.
If children do enter the justice system, they deserve to be treated with dignity. Presently, Minnesota children are more likely to be shackled in court than adults because adults are protected by federal law and no state law currently bans the restraint of children. Shackling unnecessarily traumatizes young people and is especially degrading to BIPOC children owing to its association with the horrors of slavery.
Perhaps the only thing more degrading than being held in chains is being visually strip searched. Minnesota children currently are searched numerous times when in detention: after family visits and whenever they leave campus for medical visits or court hearings. Strip-searches rob children of their innocence, and for children already robbed of their innocence (more than one-third of girls in the juvenile justice system are sexual abuse survivors), having an adult inspect their breasts, buttocks and/or genitals is re-traumatizing. The proposed new law would end this practice.
The bill would also prohibit extremely harmful solitary confinement for children, known in Minnesota as "Disciplinary Room Time." Novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote, "The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." Imagine what placing children in isolation as a punishment reveals about Minnesota.
Solitary confinement is associated with psychosis, depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm and is far worse for children because more than anyone they crave human contact. Shame on us for allowing this practice to continue in this state.
Arrest and detention can have a profound impact on the life chances for young people. Juvenile justice reform is a moral imperative. New laws will send a strong message to the children of this state that their lives matter, even if they make mistakes. Because we all make mistakes growing up, even if only some of us get caught.
James Densley is professor and chair of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University and co-author of the book, "Minnesota's Criminal Justice System."