Reform on the Juvenile Crime Front

Written by Jeff Johnson on July 28, 2009. Posted in General


Major Changes Underway in Dealing with Juvenile Offenders

I often focus on the negative in this blog, pointing out those things that I believe are ill-conceived or wasteful in Hennepin County. That doesn’t mean that Hennepin County isn’t providing many excellent and crucial services to the taxpayers of the county on a daily basis. Those many positive things, however, are frequently touted by the media and by the county’s active public relations staff.

One of the main purposes of this blog is to inform taxpayers of those matters that they might not otherwise know about – those things that the media has missed and the county doesn’t choose to trumpet (such as the monthly Golden Fire Hydrant). Not surprisingly, those things are usually not all that positive.

I do intend, however, to give credit where it is due on occasion, especially when county leadership and staff are willing to take difficult steps to reform or streamline the way services are provided in Hennepin County.

A great example of this is the effort underway to dramatically change the way the county handles juvenile correctional out-of-home placement. This is the process used by courts and the corrections system to remove children who have committed crimes from their homes and place them in juvenile detention, a residential treatment program or a group home or foster home setting.

From my understanding, what Hennepin County (and most other counties) have been doing for decades has been very expensive and largely unsuccessful – at least if success is measured by whether these juveniles recommit crimes (often called “recidivism”) after completing their out-of-home placement.

Last week, the Board was given a detailed briefing on some of the major changes that are occuring in this area. I won’t pretend to be well-versed on this topic – I have a lot yet to learn. Nor will I try to outline every major change that is occurring, but I do want to point out three reforms underway that are very significant and very positive.

1. Choosing fewer out-of-home placement providers and basing those choices on performance: Currently, the county uses 68 different providers from throughout the country. Not a single provider is operating under a written contract with the county (despite the county spending millions on these providers). The providers are sometimes chosen by county staff or by judges ordering the out-of-home placement.

Going forward, the county intends to limit the number of providers, require written contracts and base those contracts on an RFP process that focuses on the measurable successes of each provider applicant. In other words, applicants will now have to document their record in returning juvenile offenders to law-abiding behavior.

2. Creating and using alternatives to out-of-home placement: Regardless of what the county does, there will always be violent kids who need to be placed in juvenile detention or some other restrictive program. There are many lower-risk juvenile offenders, however, who are placed in these same settings now and come out of the programs worse than they entered, having learned new tricks of the trade from the high-risk juvenile criminals who were in the same placement.

The new plan is to use an evidence-based assessment tool before assigning a juvenile offender to out-of-home placement. There might be more effective (and much cheaper) alternatives for lower-risk kids, such as electronic home monitoring or community work crews. If so, we should be using them.

3. Paying closer attention to outcomes: Going forward, there will be an automated out-of-home placement report given to each judge so he or she can track every kid placed and follow the progress of that child and the costs associated with the placement. There will also now be an automated recidivism report on each juvenile formerly placed so that judges and others can assess the success of each program in changing the longer-term behavior of kids.

Although this seems like something that should have been in place long ago, it was not, and this is a very significant positive change in the system.

To some folks, these changes might seem insignificant. They are not. They are requiring a major change in thinking and culture for many in the court and corrections systems in Hennepin County. We should applaud county staff and leadership for pushing hard for these changes. They will not only save taxpayers some money, but will hopefully pull at least some kids out of an unending cycle of crime.

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