Minnesota is about to implement several juvenile justice system reforms that are being cheered by advocates.
The public-safety omnibus bill approved by lawmakers this spring includes several changes. A key provision puts strict limits on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention centers.
Sarah Davis, director of the children and families division at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, said it means the practice can’t be used as a form of punishment, and called it a critically important move in seeking improvements.
“Solitary confinement—in particular, solitary confinement of youths—is a fundamental human rights violation,” she said, “and many other states have already banned or significantly limited the practice.”
Other changes include limiting strip searches and prohibiting life sentences without parole for defendants who were minors at the time of the offense. Addressing these matters has sometimes resulted in tension in Minnesota, including a recent Hennepin County case that involved a controversial plea deal for two teens. But Davis said these reforms still leave plenty of room for meaningful accountability.
Davis said the timing of these reforms is also important because some law-enforcement agencies are handling cases involving defendants as young as 10 and 11 years old.
“The behaviors that they’re engaging in are a form of communication about unmet needs,” she said, “and we want to make sure that we are engaging in practices and that we have policies grounded in what we know to be evidence-based about supporting youth and positive youth development.”
The public-safety bill also creates the Office of Restorative Practices for youths, which provides technical support and training for implementing these models. Restorative justice often involves participation from those harmed by the crime, family members and the community to determine a proper way for the young defendant to make amends. Defendants have to articulate how an agreement will deter them from getting in trouble again.
Mike Moen writes for the Minnesota News Connection.