By Charles Hallman
St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter (l) and Rep. Rena Moran both oppose the bill.
Current state law that says children have to be at least age 14 before being charged as adults. However, a new bill is being considered that, if passed, would allow a judge to certify children as young as age 10 as adults if they are accused of committing a violent crime.
The Minnesota House Public Safety Police and Finance Committee, scheduled to meet February 15 to vote on moving House Bill 306 onto the legislative docket, faced strong opposition during an earlier committee meeting last week, February 10.
Lynn and Travis Johnson have been lobbying the state legislature to change the current law after their two-year-old daughter Emily was killed in 2006 by a 13-year-old son of her day-care provider in Fergus Falls. Lynn Johnson said during the committee meeting that she suggested a 10-year-old age standard to “get [the] attention” of the lawmakers.
The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake), testified last week that his bill would include manslaughter, assault, aggravated robbery or sexual conduct as violent juvenile offenses. Two other states, Kansas and Vermont, have set the minimum age at 10; Indiana can lower it to age 10 in murder cases; and it is at age 12 in Colorado and Missouri, Westrom pointed out.
“It is not a foregone conclusion that they would automatically be certified as an adult,” noted Westrom of children potentially affected by the law.
Most of the persons who packed the meeting room last week and opposed the bill were Blacks. “It would be detrimental, especially against our African American community, that a 10-year-old be locked away and the key be thrown away,” said Juan Coleman of Minneapolis.
According to 2009 data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections, over 35 percent of the state prison population is Black. Whites at 47 percent are higher in number, but only 4.5 percent of Minnesota’s general population is Black, so incarceration rates are highly disproportionate.
Also, a racial impact statement by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission pointed out that four (one-third) of the 12 offenders who were 14 years old at the time of the offense and were sentenced in adult court from 2001-2009 were Black.
“Ten-year-olds would be in prison with 170 [adult] sex offenders and violent adults,” said Rep. Joe Mullery (DFL-Mpls). “This is not the way to help a child who has really got some mental and emotional problems.”
However, committee chairman Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder) told the crowd he intends to see the bill move forward. He admonished opponents of the bill not to speak if they did not bring solutions and suggested that “little Emily” should be supported instead of “little Johnny,” referring to the person who commits the crime. Most of the audience immediately voiced their displeasure after hearing Cornish’s comments.
Coleman suggested that the lawmaker may have been surprised by the large turnout of Blacks to a regularly scheduled weekly committee meeting, adding, “We were here to make a stand for our communities.”
Rep. Cornish “lectured the audience and used biased assumptions about the people in the audience,” noted Rev. Robert Stephens of the African American Adoption Agency in St. Paul.
Mullery admitted that Cornish could have been more diplomatic. “I think that was what [the audience] was upset with: He was kind of presenting opponents as being not worried about the victims.”
Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul), the only Black member of the committee, said that she could not support the bill. “I cannot look at a 14-year-old, a 13-year-old, a 10-year-old baby as an adult,” she explained, “and think that at any time we can see them other than as a 10-year-old. They don’t have the capacity cognitively…to function as an adult. To see a child as an adult is a failure on our part as adults.”
Moran instead proposed that, along with needed changes to the juvenile justice system, there should be consequences for a youth’s actions, “but we also have to treat them…and get them the services that they need, so that a child [who commits a crime] at 13 doesn’t find themselves at age 17 on a killing spree.”
“There should be punishment for deviant or heinous crimes such as murder” regardless of age, responded Westrom.
Moran said she agrees that the bill could adversely affect Blacks and other persons of color. “I think if we look at our criminal justice system we would see that the African American community is disapportionally represented, whether in the juvenile justice system or as adults. We are incarcerated in large numbers.”
Westrom said afterwards that he didn’t understand why so many Blacks who attended the meeting were adamantly against his bill. “It would only apply to someone committing a crime. I don’t know how it would unfairly affect one group or another.”
“You can disguise the actual law and say you are going to prosecute all people, but the facts show that the minority communities get prosecuted at a way higher rate than any other community in the state of Minnesota,” said Troy Parker of the Minnesota Citizens for Reform and Economic Equality. “The other part is that when you leave that ability for the prosecutor to then decide the fate of the 10-year-old kid, you are opening up whole new floodgates of people’s civil rights and everything else being violated.”
“I think it is bizarre that they are even bringing a bill like this up,” admitted Mullery, who is against it. “We should be working on…how can we help kids in society grow, and how do we change the juvenile justice system to really straighten kids out as soon as they get into problems.”
Also in attendance at last week’s meeting was St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter, who said that the public should be allowed to speak about House Bill 306 before it goes forward. “The chair [Cornish] implored us to present solutions. I would have loved the opportunity to turn that challenge back toward the chair and the committee, because a harsh penalty to the kid who committed that horrible crime doesn’t bring the child back.
“If we want to prevent ‘little Emily’s’ from happening,” surmised Carter, “maybe we ought to invest in educating our children, securing our families, and promoting livability and vibrancy in our neighborhoods. But that didn’t seem to be the interest of the committee.”
“We cannot prosecute children as adults,” Moran told the MSR after last week’s meeting. “I hope that this bill dies. I think we have to look at reforming our juvenile system, and let that be our focus and our guide to better outcomes.”
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