Hennepin County works to keep kids out of jail, reports success so far

Efforts to keep juveniles out of Hennepin County's criminal justice system appear to be working, but now the prosecutor’s office is taking it up a notch. 

One small mistake when you’re young shouldn’t haunt you for life, they say as the Hennepin County attorney works to ensure every kid can start life as an adult – with no record.

There’s no question that first degree assault, rape and murder committed by juveniles will result in prosecution. But it’s the lesser crimes that Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman thinks shouldn’t necessarily ruin a kid’s life.

“Many juveniles do dumb things; that’s the nature of being a teenager. But, committing a low level crime should not follow you the rest of your life,” Freeman said. 

Since 2007, Freeman has put forth a big effort to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system. He told schools to start handling things like smoking, vandalism and minor fighting themselves and he said they’ve done a good job. 

In the 2006-2007 school year 2,513 cases were referred to his office by the schools. Last school year it was just 728. Also, for the juvenile cases that do land in his office, he tries to divert as many as he can. Last year, 34 percent got a second chance.

“They don’t get off with a hug and ‘please don’t do that again,’ instead they have to make restitution for their crime,” Freeman said.

Corey Harland with the Headway Diversion Program said it’s not a simple “get out of jail free card.”

“It’s an opportunity where we still provide consequences to youth but also an opportunity where we provide resources for family and youth that will potentially last longer than the diversion program and the involvement that the youth have with the attorney’s office,” he said. 

But it seems for some families in diversion there are roadblocks. So, Harland will take things up a notch by giving everyone a chance at success.

“For those families who are struggling to make it day by day, I will go ahead and do intakes in the community where they’re at to take that burden of coming to our office off of their shoulders,” Harland said.