Mary Moriarty

Talking to Mary Moriarty About Juvenile Justice Reform

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Photo Sarah Whiting

As the new Hennepin County Attorney, Mary Moriarty was elected into a position that had been held by her predecessor for 16 years. Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Moriarty about her intentions for juvenile legal reform, and why she feels it is needed. This is an edited version of our conversation.

You were a public defender for most of your career, and now you serve on the prosecuting side. How unusual is that in your field?

I believe there’s only one other person in Minnesota who was a public defender and then became an elected county attorney. It’s not your typical path. But I think it’s a helpful path, because I got to see a lot of the trauma [that led people into the criminal legal system]. I represented a lot of adult clients and got to ask them questions about their histories. I often thought that if [law enforcement] had intervened earlier, this person probably wouldn’t be sitting next to me now. That was a huge takeaway. So much of what we see is preventable. We could be much more effective in intervening and offering resources and getting people — youth in particular — the help that they need when these problems are surfacing. That’s a really valuable perspective to [have as a prosecutor].

How is the juvenile justice system in Minnesota broken?

We have a system that makes the legal assumption that one should be treated as an adult in the criminal system when they’re 18, yet we also know from research that people aren’t fully developed until they’re about 25 years old. When I came in, I created a Children and Family Services Division. When youth are in that developmental stage, we know they’re susceptible to risk and exhibit thrill-seeking, impulsive behavior. Anybody who has been around a young person knows they aren’t always thinking. Then you add on the pandemic, when you had a lot of youth who didn’t have the opportunity to connect with a caring teacher — there’s a lot of mental health issues.

We were hearing about youth who were involved in car thefts, carjackings, joy riding. There was a TikTok challenge to steal a Kia or Hyundai [in 90 seconds].

It became very apparent to me that we have systems that impact youth and their families but aren’t [allowed to share information with] each other. Because we’re talking about the same kids, we really need to be getting together and sharing resources, hearing frustration from law enforcement, and [talking with] parents — who love their kids very much, and want help with a child who won’t listen. We came up with our Early Intervention pilot initiative. We met with law enforcement all over Hennepin County and [offered to] have our team’s child protection or truancy diversion program, or our social worker team, simply make a connection to the caseworker to say, “How can we help?” The idea is to prevent kids from coming into the youth prosecution system. So far, it’s looking really promising.

We know more about how boys are in trouble. What can you share about how girls are impacted?

It’s less publicized. There are a number of girls who are coming to the attention of law enforcement, not going to school, or running away. There are girls that are trafficked as well. In general, there are services available to boys that are not available to girls. That puts us in a terrible position, because under no circumstances should we be sending a teenage girl to prison simply because that is the only option. A high percentage of girls experience sexual trauma, and we certainly need many more interventions to address that.

A mother was concerned that law enforcement was finding her daughter in stolen cars with older boys or men. She had concerns that her daughter was being exploited. The focus of law enforcement seemed to be that she was in these cars, but I wondered, “Is anybody putting the pieces together to see there was something more going on there?” When youth engage in risky behavior, they’re telling us something is happening with them. Are we putting together those pieces and really looking at it in a comprehensive way? Let’s find out about the whole kid — not just that she is in stolen cars.

We also know that so many of the women incarcerated have experienced trauma.

If anyone doubts that women experience a lot of trauma, go to a prison and listen to the women’s stories about what’s happened to them. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence has said that 60 to 70 percent of incarcerated women in 2015 reported childhood physical or sexual violence; 70 to 80 percent reported adulthood intimate partner violence.

We’ve been exploring a program called Group Violence Intervention, which has a youth component that was very successful in Minneapolis in 2018 and 2019. The idea is to intervene with the small group of people that are involved in violence.

A group of people that make up about half of 1 percent of the population account for 50 to 70 percent of the people who either commit homicides or are killed.

There is the perception of crime and the reality of crime. Crime has dropped greatly in this area. Car thefts have gone way up, but in general crime is dropping, which is consistent with the rest of the country. But I think there’s still the [incorrect] perceptions that have made people more fearful, especially if you happen to be looking at [the hyperlocal social networking site] Nextdoor. If something happens to you or somebody you know, that is very real. I’m not discounting that at all. But crime is not as widespread as people fear.

I did a story about the Next Step program, intervening with victims of violence in hospital rooms. Do we have enough services like this in Hennepin County?

We don’t have enough resources. Next Step is part of evidence-based practices that have worked nationally. After somebody has been shot or injured in some way, a team goes to the hospital to connect with them, their family members, their friends — to tell them that retaliating is not the way to go and to ask them, “How can we help you?”

We have really effective people in the community that are doing great work with youth, not really getting compensated for it, and not getting enough resources.

We are also writing in this issue about the high incidence of foster care and incarceration.

I tend to think that in all of our systems, we can do better. But we have to learn from what we’re seeing — to really rely on actual research and science about what works. It is really expensive to hold somebody in prison. And often when they’re in prison, they have done something to hurt somebody else. So the idea that we could prevent that, even if it costs us more upfront, probably would be a whole lot cheaper than sending somebody to prison.

We know veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder, and that is taken into account in sentencing if they are caught up in the legal system. Why isn’t there the same option for victims of childhood trauma?

We’re not very far along in the system of understanding how trauma manifests itself. We’re not far along in really understanding that people are engaging in behavior because of something else. We look at it simply as a property crime or a drug crime. We need to take a deep dive into the “why.”

You talked about a youth who had to be sent to another state for treatment during a May forum about juvenile justice reform. Why does that happen?

Some states have resources we do not for youth who aren’t safe to go home. We have the juvenile detention center — the place where police can bring a kid to hold them until they’re charged and their case is resolved. But we have a huge gap other than that. There aren’t enough facilities here for youth in Minnesota.

There was a case of a 12-year-old we had to send to Utah. I never imagined that I would be advocating for that, but that was the only choice we had.

Ramsey County successfully requested money from the legislature this year to fund a continuum of care. I testified in support of that bill. Hennepin County got money for a task force that is going to make recommendations for the next legislative session. The police chiefs around Hennepin County shouldn’t be in a position to send a girl to prison because there is no other place for her. We have 12-year-olds in the juvenile detention center for weeks and months.

I’m a big fan of the mobile behavioral crisis team in Minneapolis. It’s not police related. It’s not an embedded social worker with police. It’s a separate entity, and they have the expertise to interact appropriately with people in a mental health crisis.

You had pushback early in your tenure with the youth involved in a domestic violence case. State Attorney General Keith Ellison stepped in to take the case to trial. Could you speak to that situation?

The youth was 15 at the time. It was a terrible domestic violence case. He was manipulated by an adult who couldn’t let go of a former relationship. We know that youth have potential to be rehabilitated because of the plasticity in their brain. We also need to look at whether there have been effective interventions in a youth’s history.

One alternative is to send this youth to adult prison. He would probably get out in his thirties — after being very traumatized and not receiving the treatment that he needed — and be at risk in the community after that. We know [those patterns] from research. At 15, given the fact that he was manipulated by an adult, given his lack of prior record, given the time we had with him, we thought this was the best path to go.

Now, having said that, I also completely understand why the family was very upset. I came into the job in January, and this office had been working with that family and telling them about sending this kid to prison. I understand why me coming in with a different perspective would be very upsetting to them.

We have been conditioned to think about justice as punishment. Are we really about punishment and retribution? Or are we about rehabilitation, if we think it’s possible?

There are times when people need to be incapacitated, because they just aren’t safe to have out in the community. But people have been sold on prison as justice for a long period of time. We are working on a building a restorative justice component, based on a model from New York called Common Justice.

As a public defender, I saw victims give impact statements, which are really heartbreaking. They have questions they want answers to from this person who harmed them. And they never get those answers. The person is sent to prison and the victim has no opportunity for healing, for learning, “What were you thinking? Why did you do this?”

That’s what alternatives like Common Justice offer. They work with youth aged 16 to 26 on [some assault cases], and their recidivism rate is 7 percent; in Hennepin County recidivism rates are 30 to 40 percent. The person who harmed somebody else has to take true accountability for it, explore why they did it, and figure out how to make it not happen again. We’re hoping to get that program here.