‘Your Honor, don’t send that child to jail, give him to us’

alt logoRamsey County JDAI Stakeholder Committee: August 18, 2015. Agenda: The next JDAI focus?

Brief background — JDAI stands for Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. In 2005, community elders recognized secure detention (kiddy jail) as the entry gate to prison pipelines and mobilized an attack with phenomenal and measurable success. In short they said, “Instead of jailing low level juvenile offenders, let community serve as an alternative.” The annual intake plummeted in the Ramsey County juvenile detention by 70 percent in just five years. Yes, between 2005 and 2010, Ramsey County Juvenile detention dropped from more than 4,000 children per year to less than 1,000, with no corresponding increase in juvenile crime.

However, a multiplicity of issues still loom. The Aug. 18 JDAI meeting addressed the future and focus of JDAI, including whether it should continue to exist at all.

Profound community elevated the stakes, raising the bar, asking the questions, “Does legitimacy exist in police, probation and courts.”

The community was seeking reform, beginning at police contact to juvenile intake, extending beyond the magic 18-candle birthday cake. What should reform look like? Where does it start? Whose responsibility is it? Is finger pointing enough? Does it start with me and you, or is reform a team sport?

Tension in the room was thicker than pea soup, no, potato soup. But there was no shouting, chants, slogans, or venting. Community activist, parents, voters, and taxpayers filtered into the room, soberly about the business at hand.

A hush was in the room. Two figures approached the front of the room, and took the mic. Laura La Blanc and Russel Balenger introduced the Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition, then delivered a data driven researched based power point, offering voices of 77 people interviewed.

“We are individuals who have experienced local policing and the court system first hand. We are an expanding agency of individual partners who share experience as victims, offenders, defendants, prosecuted, convicted, incarcerated, etc. We exist to mobilize, inform, and include the community voice.”

Feedback indicated that community does not call police due to fear that police will turn on them, and blame them. It is not safe to speak up. Children are taking plea agreements, without parents or attorneys present, without fully understanding the long-term collateral damage and consequences of over criminalizing. People take plea agreements because it is too risky not to do so. Police and courts are dehumanizing, traumatizing, and breaking communities. When we are guilty the punishment is too severe. When we are innocent we cannot defend ourselves. When we are victims we get blamed and crimes against us are not solved.

Additional concerns included continued use of criminal cells for runaway children and status offenders, existing alternatives lack inspiration, quality and nourishment envisioned by ATD Goals.

Specific requests were listed as a prosecutorial discretion study seeking restorative practices, law enforcement return to principals of community policing (meaning problem solving with community) towards public tranquility, that police use force only when necessary, and only to the extent necessary and law enforcement develop clear and comprehensive de-escalation policies and procedures once a threat is neutralized.

The elected, and appointed officials in the room elevated the occasion to a problem solving think-tank, rising above and beyond an “us against them” situation. Judge George Stephens, Judge Michael Clark, Ramsey County Atty. Jon Choi, Police Chief Tom Smith, County Commissioners Mary Jo McGuire, Victoria Reinhardt and Toni Carter all listened attentively and participated generously. The exchange consisted of thoughtful questions, insightful pushbacks, and rebuttals. The spirit in the room was that of deep genuine concern about the lives, future and freedom of the constituency. Everyone stayed at the table. No one took their toys, stormed out, slamming the door.

For many, distrust of those we pay to protect us, and fear of retaliation is the paramount issue. Others expressed concern of “overkill” when use of deadly force is justified.

To their credit, the officials were gracious, agreeing to craft a rough draft response for the next quarterly JDAI Stakeholder Meeting (date to be determined).

Don’t get me wrong. Feathers were ruffled as expected. But everyone acclimated to the discomfort in the room and pressed onward, and muscled through the tuff stuff. Attendees appeared a little rattled; some irritated. But feedback on both sides was that this was the most fruitful JDAI meeting in years.

September 8, 2015
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