Sweeping reforms are set to be put in place regarding juvenile justice in Minnesota following Governor Tim Walz’s signing legislation last month that would reform how the system handles juveniles.
Among these reforms is the end of juvenile solitary confinement, restricting the use of strip searches, the creation of the Office of Restorative Practices, and reducing the number of years a juvenile sentenced to life can petition the parole board to review their sentence after 15 years rather than 30 years.
The precedent for these reforms came in 2012, when the Supreme Court ruled that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles was a violation of the 8th Amendment and deemed it cruel and unusual punishment. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, several advocacy groups and communities have worked together over the years to change Minnesota state law to comply with the high court’s ruling.
Doug Keillor is the director of Juvenile Justice Advocates International, a global organization dedicated to protecting the rights of children. Keillor stated that the U.S. is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to these kinds of reforms that work to rehabilitate juveniles in the criminal justice system.
“Within the context of the United States being the only country that allows this, Minnesota is one of the very last states—meaning it’s one of the very last jurisdictions in the entire world—that has finally gotten rid of life sentences without the possibility of parole for children,” he said.
Though Keillor’s organization is based in Mexico City and has an office in St. Paul, the juvenile justice reform bill was the first piece of legislation in the U.S. that they helped pass despite their international focus.
Perry Moriearty, a professor of criminal law and juvenile justice, has been working on these reforms in Minnesota for the past decade, helping craft bills year after year. She has now finally seen those efforts rewarded. She co-directs the Child Advocacy in Juvenile Justice Clinic, which in recent years has gained attention for its representation of Myon Burrell who was sentenced to life in prison at 16. According to Moriearty, a majority of those who will be impacted by these reforms are Black and Brown.
“Ninety-seven people are currently serving sentences of 15 years or more for juvenile offenses. Of those, 82 percent are Black or Brown. When you look at those serving, when you bump up to 20 years those serving consecutive sentences for multiple victim cases, 92 percent are Black or Brown,” she said.
Avra Anagnostis, the founder of Juvenile Sentencing Reform MN, has also worked alongside others to ensure that legislatures passed these reforms. Anagnostis launched her organization in 2020, as a way to continue her fight for her childhood best friend, Roberto Lopez-Rios, to be released. Lopez-Rios was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 in 2001 for being involved in a drive-by shooting, though he was not the gunman.
Three years after launching her organization, Anagnostis is now working with 50 individuals who were incarcerated as juveniles serving life sentences. Many of them have expressed remorse for their crimes and share that they don’t have an accurate memory of the events for which they’ve been sent to prison.
Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty campaigned on juvenile justice reform and testified at the state capitol in favor of restorative justice practices for juveniles caught in the system. Moriarty said that with these new laws, her office will now have new tools to help examine the cases that come before them.
“It was a very productive session on public safety and particularly people who were juveniles at the time,” she said. “We’re still sorting through all of the different new tools we have to make sure that we are implementing them in a transparent way.”
Science of juvenile justice reform
Much of the argument in favor of juvenile justice reform is the science of brain development and the lack of impulse control young people have compared to adults. Some legal and developmental experts state that because of this reality, in most cases, juveniles should not be tried as adults. Professor Moriearty also believes that juveniles have a better chance of being rehabilitated as well.
“By virtue of their documented neurodevelopmental differences, that they are immature, that their culpability is less than that of an adult, their capacity for change is enhanced by their young age. We should take that into account and sentence them differently than adults,” Moriearty said. “Our bill gives anyone sentenced to prison as a juvenile eligibility for review and release after 15 years with a few exceptions. I want to reemphasize that review and release does not mean automatic release.”
With this change, juveniles will have the ability to go in front of the Juvenile Review Board made up of the Department of Corrections Commissioner, four appointees from both parties, and two experts in the areas of neurological development. There are a number of factors that go into the decision that will help the review board decide whether or not someone is eligible for release during a life sentence.
Mary Moriarty points to assessments that a psychologist may conduct or a review of an inmate’s time in prison and what they might have accomplished while behind bars.
“Has this person completed some type of degree? Have they reached out and been a mentor to others, maybe young people who come into the prison? It isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all. There are certain tests that can be administered and certainly the opinions of psychologists,” she said.
When it comes to prosecuting crime in Hennepin County, Moriarty seeks to have a holistic approach to each case and factor in key aspects of each juvenile’s life and record to best assess what the appropriate sentence could be. She looks at their history, the options available for rehabilitation, and the particular crime that they have committed. Rather than have a one-size-fits-all approach, Moriarty believes she needs to take each case on individually.
McKeever case and plea deal
In recent months, the Hennepin County attorney’s approach to juvenile justice has been in the headlines following Gov. Walz’s appointment of Attorney General Keith Ellison to a murder case involving two juveniles that Moriarty was prosecuting.
The victim, Zaria McKeever, was killed on the night of November 8, after a break-in involving a 15 and 17-year-old, who were instructed by Erick Haynes, the victim’s boyfriend, who drove them to her home and allegedly purchased the murder weapon.
Haynes and two other adults are being tried for the murder, and face life in prison, while Moriarty’s office offered a plea deal to the juveniles in exchange for their testimony against the adults.
The victim’s family members objected to the plea deal and felt as though the two years in the juvenile detention center followed by an extended juvenile justice sentence wasn’t right in this case, and the governor, as well as Attorney General Ellison, agreed.
Moriarty stands by her decision to offer the plea deal and the decision to offer two years in juvenile detention followed by an extended juvenile justice sentence, which would serve as a probationary period, where either offender would be sent to an adult prison for 150 months (12 ½ years) if they violate the terms of their probation.
She expressed her empathy for McKeever’s family but stated that she took several factors into consideration in making her decision.
“Something horrific happened to their daughter and loved one and I have nothing but empathy and compassion for them. I’m sure it was difficult for them to be told one thing then I got into office, and I did what I said that I would do during the campaign, which was to look at individual cases and try to see what was in the best interest of public safety,” she said.
For any criticism of her office not certifying certain juveniles as adults, Moriarty points to the case of Avon Semaj Longstreet, a 17-year-old who was charged with murder despite no previous history for his involvement in the Mall of America shooting in December 2022.
“My recollection is that he had no history, but it was appropriate to certify him as an adult,” Moriarty said. “We look at each and every individual case and we looked at all of those factors and decided it simply didn’t serve public safety by keeping him in the juvenile system.”
When it comes to the 15-year-old involved in McKeever’s death, Moriarty wonders what benefit it would bring to the community for him to serve a long sentence and return to the community after a traumatic experience of being held in prison with adults.
Youth crime intervention
Many of the changes in which prosecutors like Moriarty are examining are the preventive initiatives that keep juveniles out of the system before they commit a felony.
“One of the things that I think is really positive about the new legislation is that it does allow us to intervene early on. For instance, there are restorative justice grants there to establish restorative justice practices, which we know are very successful,” she said. “There’s also crime victim services funding. I testified in favor of this, grants established for organizations that provide direct services to crime victims.”
Moriarty also mentioned working on diversion programs with the Minneapolis Police Department and housing situations to catch children at risk of incarceration early on and set them on a better path with the right support system put in place.
Many of the cases in which restorative justice practices are used are property crimes and other non-violent offenses. However, there are conversations on what justice looks like for the juvenile offender and the victim when a violent crime is involved.
Going forward, Anagnostis believes that the answer to figuring out how to address the issues around juvenile justice reform can come from the individuals who are currently serving life sentences and have had time to reflect on their situation.
“The majority of them really recognize the harm they’ve caused, and they want to also work to change and prevent those cycles of violence and that pain from continuing for both the victims and for the incarcerated kids themselves,” she said.
This is part of an ongoing MSR series about crime and juvenile justice in Black communities.