Public safety, and how to reduce crime rates, is a pressing question for many voters this year. At a July forum of Hennepin County attorney general candidates, one question raised was how to address the roots and consequences of youth crime — exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic, increasing homelessness of families, and unaddressed mental health concerns, as well as the long- standing lack of youth-oriented recreational and tech centers in certain communities.
Two women emerged from the field of seven candidates and will challenge each other in the November general election to lead the largest county attorney office in the state. One of them is former judge Martha Dimick, who said of juvenile crime rates at the forum: “We are not taking care of families adequately.”
The other candidate, Mary Moriarty, said we have failed youth and we are seeing the consequences of that now. “We need trauma-informed services based on mental health needs. Sending youth to correction facilities often means they come back worse than they went in.”
According to a Washington Post article, more than 1,000 juvenile facilities around the U.S. have closed since 2000. One facility based in Minnetonka closed in 2021. However, the numbers of cis and trans girls and nonbinary youth are disproportionately increasing in juvenile centers and prisons. Many are incarcerated for low-level offenses, often influenced by a history of abuse and poverty. The Post article quoted Lindsay Rosenthal, director of the Vera Institute’s Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration: “The most common reason why they are incarcerated … is that they are not safe in the community. That is wrong, and it has incredibly deep historical roots.”
A Prison Policy report determined that a majority of adults in state prison grew up in traumatic situations:
Several groups in the Twin Cities recognize that heightened issues of public safety are related to gun proliferation, gender- based violence, racism by police and others, and lack of opportunities for housing and living wages. Restorative Justice Minneapolis is a consortium of healing-oriented, grassroots organizations that are working together to determine what
it will take to build a restorative justice model for the entire state. We talked to three members in July.
What Minnesota needs, says ’Peju Solarin, of MN Cooperative Conflict Collaborative (MN-CCC), is not more Neighborhood Watch networks, but a re- examination of what it means to have a city safe from crime and trauma through intentional healing and support. MN-CCC is a largely volunteer organization that hosts Conflict De-Escalators Group trainings for offering responses to crises such as mental health conflicts.
Aiyana Sol Machade, of Kumbé Healing & Wellness, works with young people, including those who have been imprisoned, to self-heal so they can navigate emotional responses. “They are the experts of their experiences and traumas, and can also be the ones to develop solutions,” she says.
Michele Braley, of Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice, helps develop responses to harm and crime in workplaces, at schools, and in neighborhoods. Much of this justice work is done by volunteers, she says, which also means there is no comprehensive data to track the impact on reducing crime.
Getting funded requires a culture shift in society, she says. “A recognition that incarceration does not work. We do not acknowledge the reality of where the harm is coming from.”
She points out that for more than three decades scientists have been studying how brain development impacts youth, “yet [society has] done nothing to shift our response to youth behavior. Kids will make mistakes.
Bad decisions, like carjackings, are a response [to lack of support]. The best path we can take is to support all youth to make better decisions, especially while they are developing that frontal lobe.”
The people involved in Restorative Justice Minneapolis look to Hull, England, which calls itself the first Restorative City, as a model. The city uses restorative approaches within all systems that interact with youth — schools, child protection, policing — to understand and respond to everything from classroom issues to keeping kids safe in their families.
In Minnesota, children as young as 14 can be tried as an adult. As Sarah Davis at the Legal Rights Center said in a 2019 interview with the Star Tribune, the approach of restorative justice can be highly effective. “Asking a youth to sit with someone they have harmed, take ownership of their actions, and be accountable for their role in repairing harm is much harder, and much more impactful, than writing a court-ordered apology letter or picking up trash on the side of the road.”