HN county attorney challenges staff to reduce Black youth incarceration

Freeman recognizes inequities, bias in the criminal justice system

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Taxpayers nationwide pay an estimated $8 to $21 billion each year to keep juveniles in jail according to a December 2014 Justice Policy Institute report, which found that the national average confinement cost last year ranged from $400 per day or nearly $150,000 a year for each incarcerated youth. Minnesota ranked 15th among the 46 states the nonprofit justice reform group studied, coming in at $287.23 per day or almost $105,000 per year per youth.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, in an exclusive MSR interview last week, said his office has been working to keep youth, especially Black youth, out of the juvenile justice system. His office has been implementing the recommendations from a 2013 study by the Council on Crime and Justice (CCJ).

Freeman told the MSR, “We’re deeply concerned about the apparent racial inequity in the criminal justice system here in Minneapolis and in Hennepin County. I’ve been convinced for a long time about racial inequities in how we charge cases, especially among juveniles. Do we charge…differently if the kid’s skin is Black than if the kid’s skin is White?”

The executive summary in the September 2013 CCJ report, “Toward Racially Neutral Juvenile Diversion and Charging Decisions,” pointed out, “No studies in Minnesota…have analyzed the impact of juvenile prosecutorial charging and diversion decisions…of youth of color in the juvenile justice system.”

Freeman’s office also provided the CCJ with sample data of juvenile cases from 2010-11 for analysis. The CCJ studied 7,447 cases and found that White youth were more likely to be diverted than “non-White” youth, who were more likely to be charged. It also found that there was racial disparity in “prosecution charging and diversion decisions” in lower-level crimes, such as shoplifting, and there were “too many youths being charged” because they didn’t finish diversion programs.

Freeman said he further looked into why kids of color “were not completing diversion nearly the same [as] White kids. If you don’t complete diversion, then you come back and we charge you.” He learned one possible reason why kids of color “were not showing up” was because of the method by which they were being notified.

“They’ve been sent a letter to their home,” noted Freeman. “We know tragically that a lot of African American families are moving, so the letter didn’t get there,” or other reasons may come into play as well for the letter not to reach the youth.

As a result, Freeman’s office six months ago put in a new notification procedure that includes sending out follow-up letters and making home visits. “The attendance of kids of color has gone way, way up after we called, went out and knocked on doors,” said Freeman.

Paula Haywood of Hennepin County Community Corrections and Rehabilitation is the co-chair of the Eliminating Racial Disparities Committee of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives initiative. She was a member of the advisory committee that worked with the county attorney’s office in the study. She told the MSR last week that diversion programs can help steer kids away from crime.

Such programs can teach youth about laws and rules and hold them accountable, she added. She also agrees with the report that points out when it comes to juvenile offenders, especially first-time, low-level offenders, “[their] eligibility criteria vary significantly” among police departments.

“I don’t deny that there’s bias” in the criminal justice system, admitted Freeman. “I understand the suspicion in the African American community.”

Nonetheless, he said that he challenges his 175-person staff of attorneys and paralegals to make sure that when juvenile cases come to their desks they ask themselves, “Do we charge blindly? Do we ignore the race of the person [when] we charge the case?” Freeman added that the report’s findings and its recommendations, which include developing an action plan to develop “diversion criteria and programming,” are being considered.

“We felt like the advisory people” as her group was involved in the CCJ report from start to finish, said Haywood. “We reviewed it together.”

“Nobody made us do this,” concluded Freeman on the report. “There’s a great imbalance [in prosecution and diversion decisions], but let’s make sure we’re not part of the problem. My job is to prosecute [but also] keep people out of the criminal justice system.

“I always wanted to do everything I can to help people avoid being in the criminal justice system at all,” said Freeman. And if their offense is minor, I want to try and figure out how we can resolve their case, and in particular, kids. We still have work to do.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.