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Minnesota's juvenile justice system needs an overhaul — from more staff to better treatment options — in order to more effectively intervene with troubled juveniles before they reoffend.

Those are the key recommendations a group of local leaders and law enforcement officials from across the state sent to the Legislature last week. The group had been meeting since fall to identify ways to improve Minnesota's system for kids who commit crimes.

A panel made similar recommendations 25 years ago and little has changed. This time, they hope lawmakers will listen — and act.

"What have we been doing all this time?" said Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. "We let all this time pass and never made a commitment to address this issue."

Champion was the primary sponsor of legislation that created the Working Group on Youth Interventions last year in response to a spike in serious crimes committed by teenagers.

In Hennepin County, auto thefts, gun possession, assault and robbery are among the most common felonies. The number of juveniles charged with homicide is up in recent years. Between 2021 and 2023, there were 67 homicide cases involving juveniles. By comparison, in the three years prior, there were 29 cases.

Hennepin County leaders, including Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde, who co-chaired the panel, and Sheriff Dawanna Witt, were a driving force behind the creation and operation of the working group. County staff also helped with research and writing the final report.

Nonetheless, Lunde says the recommendations represent challenges facing the entire state.

"We are all struggling with the same challenges, just of a different scale and scope," he said.

What needs to change

Lawmakers directed the working group to examine Minnesota's system for youth with severe behavioral problems who ended up in the court system or child protective services. Those kids are typically sent to out-of-home placements such as foster care, residential treatment or secure detention facilities.

The panel was asked to determine if Minnesota had adequate programs and services to intervene with juveniles who have an increasing variety of needs. Its finding: The juvenile corrections and protective services systems don't work well together, and youth treatment options are typically limited by whichever state bureaucracy they're involved in.

Many communities have few local treatment providers, which can lead to an overreliance on secure detention facilities, the group found. For juveniles, that can mean prolonged time away from home and family, exacerbating their struggles.

"That didn't seem right to anyone," said Joseph Glasrud, the Stevens County attorney, appointed to the panel by the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. "There is a consistent need for mental health treatment for youth in Minnesota. I think it is well-known that there is a gap in the availability of resources."

There are also persistent racial disparities among youth who are placed in away-from-home facilities. Black and Native American youth are disproportionately more likely to be sent to residential facilities, a disparity that hasn't changed much in 25 years.

Ways to fix the system

The panel's report identifies several ways state lawmakers can improve Minnesota's work with troubled kids. They center around creating a more holistic and accessible system of addressing behavioral problems that are not limited by state and local bureaucracies. Their ideas:

Regional care: Minnesota needs more capacity and a variety of out-of-home treatment options across the state so juveniles can stay close to home. Youth should be eligible for different interventions regardless of how they entered the system.

The corrections and therapeutic systems need to work together and be more culturally responsive. A single, statewide licensing system for out-of-home placements would make it easier to staff and fund programs.

More staff: The state is facing a shortage in mental health counselors and other treatment providers as youth have increasingly specific needs. To close the gap, a workforce development push is needed with easier licensing, competitive pay and collaborations with training partners.

Better data: Minnesota needs a centralized way to collect and analyze information about youth interventions from law enforcement, courts, corrections and child protection agencies to better understand what is working.

"Without the data, we really are running blind," said panel co-Chair Al Godfrey, field services director for the state Department of Corrections.

More funding: Consistent funding is necessary to ensure policy changes stick, the panel found. They recommended lawmakers probe how insurers and state and federal funding sources affect the accessibility of treatment and rehabilitation services.

What comes next

In its last meeting, held Feb. 14, working group members acknowledged they were sending a complex report to state lawmakers who already have a lot on their plate.

Legislators returned to the Capitol in St. Paul Feb. 12 for a session largely focused on policy changes after approving a two-year state budget last year. Working group members say there will be a concerted effort to win bipartisan support for changes that would help kids with behavioral problems and combat rising youth crime.

One piece of legislation will not accomplish it all. Incremental changes will be needed over the next few years to put the panel's recommendations into action.

Given all the attention to rising youth crime in recent years, Champion said it is important lawmakers not lose focus.

"There should be a widespread commitment, across this Legislature, to say we want to tackle this issue," Champion said. "There's a saying: Many hands make the load light."