When it comes to the juvenile justice system, it takes courage to break with past practice and experiment with new processes that may engender different outcomes.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is months into such an initiative that looks at how best to redirect young offenders, turning them away from a potential life of crime. Like many, Choi has been frustrated by a system that often is singularly ineffective at just that. "It's not like conviction works," he said. "Otherwise we wouldn't see repeat offenders." With younger offenders in particular, he said, "we have to try something different."
After two years of discussion and data review that Choi said included members of the St. Paul Police Department, his office over the summer assembled a Collaborative Review Team made up of a prosecutor, a public defender and a community member involved in restorative justice.
Some cases, instead of being charged, were referred to this team to more deeply examine the facts and the lives of the offenders and consider nonjudicial options. That, Choi told an editorial writer, has been a missing component. Because of their adversarial role, he said, "prosecutors are not permitted to talk to family members" of the arrestee. "We never get to that moment of figuring out what might stop the behavior, help the child, help the family."
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who has emerged as a leading critic of Choi's policies, accused him of making "an end run around the judicial system." Fletcher's frustration is understandable — police and prosecutors are sometimes at odds over charging decisions — but that goes too far.
Joseph Daly, a former law professor at Hamline, an arbitrator for the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and recognized expert on dispute resolution, told an editorial writer that county attorneys, by state law, "have tremendous latitude in determining how to handle cases." The decision to charge or not is "entirely within Choi's authority," he said.
That does not mean law enforcement has no place in such discussions. We applaud Choi's commitment to innovation, even that which may make some uncomfortable. But the law enforcement agencies most affected — including the largest in his district — should be part of those discussions.
Choi told an editorial writer he intends to include them as his office refines the program before a more formal launch in 2022. One change already made, he said, is that juvenile cases involving assault with a weapon, or where there is a threat to public safety, will generally not be eligible for Collaborative Review.
This is not the first time Choi has faced criticism or tangled with law enforcement agencies. Earlier this year he announced that his office would no longer prosecute felonies that arose from so-called pretextual stops for minor traffic violations, such as a broken taillight. A state Senate hearing on Thursday heard from a range of law enforcement agencies opposed to that decision.
It's important to note that as elected officials search for ways to enact meaningful reforms to criminal justice and policing, they be given some room to experiment, and even to fail.
"We're still looking at where to refine and improve, and for that we needed to actually start doing this," Choi said of the soft launch. "This fall and winter we hope to engage more voices from community and law enforcement, to engage all."
Choi said he is committed to transparency and research. "If this is a failure, we won't continue it," he said. "But we're trying to do something better than what we've always done.
"I want a better quality of justice that does better by those negatively impacted by the justice system," he said, "but one that also prioritizes the well-being, safety and peace of the entire community."