Donna Ennis

Jailing Juvenile Offenders Doesn’t Work

I have been involved for the past several years in the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). There is overwhelming evidence that the wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a failed strategy for combating youth crime.

Disproportionately, young people of color are confined in juvenile correctional facilities. A Risk Assessment Instrument was developed and then implemented and subsequently every juvenile charged with a crime was given the RAI with the consequence of a dramatic reduction in youth of color in our juvenile detention facility. This has been an effective racial equity strategy in my community.

When I was given an opportunity to implement a local racial justice improvement project focused on addressing community problems that contribute to the racially disparate impact of the adult criminal justice system I accepted. The American Bar Association selected St Louis County, Minnesota as one of four sites in the nation to receive a grant to support a Racial Justice Improvement Project. The Racial Justice Task Force was tasked with incorporating stakeholders and community dialogue and engagement as well as providing community members with a place at the stakeholder table.  In this way, those directly impacted by high crime rates as well as racial disparities would actively inform discussions about issues, problems and solutions.

We used a five-step process to determine the degree to which racial disparity exists in our criminal justice system in St Louis County:

1. Identify Stages in the Criminal Justice System with a Disproportionate Representation of Minorities

2. Assess Key Decision Points

3. Identify the Causes of Disparity

4. Design and Implement Strategies

5. Monitor Effectiveness

After collecting data we discovered that the largest disparity was in the disparate number of minorities that continue in detention during pre-trial. In addition bail amounts tend to be higher for American Indians and African Americans. Our community was fortunate in that the disparity could be addressed with a change in practice rather than a change in policy. Generally bail reform was looked at with an effort to create consistent practices that will result in racial equity during pre trial decision making. Our Task Force recognized the importance of ensuring that the tool used to assess risk did not discriminate against those with different races, ethnicities, or cultural backgrounds. We used a similar tool to the one created by JDAI. In addition, best practices advocate the disassociation of the bail system from financial resources including the elimination of all financial bail. Elimination of commercial bail bonding would bring about a more equitable system of pretrial release because the conditions would be unrelated to financial resources, which places many minorities at a disadvantage. (The Sentencing Project).

After the development of the Risk Assessment Instrument (RAI) a day-long workshop was held for the Judges who preside over arraignments and make bail determinations and the Probation Officers who handle pretrial investigative reports and community supervision of pretrial defendants. The training covered pretrial release determinations and bias-free decision-making in the criminal justice system.

The Task Force had required participants of (1) the Chief Judge, (2) the Chief of Police, (3) the District Attorney, (4) the Public Defender, and (5) a Community Representative. I was the Community Representative for the Task Force. My contributions to the RJIP included; Bringing a different world vision to the table, seeing the issue from a person of color perspective, reminding the criminal justice practitioners what the public perception is, reminding about the impact on the public of system decisions, provided out of the box thinking, speaking up without representing a group of employees or concern for electability, the only voice without budget considerations, bringing a voice for the voiceless, potential to expand sources of support, and educating those who created or perpetuated the problem.

I believe it is time that we establish racial equity as a community standard. When we do this the conversations can move beyond the prove to me that there is a problem with disparity and instead ask ourselves what can we do to help. If you would like to do something in your community to make a positive change contact the American Bar Association (ABA).

Donna Ennis is currently the chair of the Minnesota Indian Child Welfare Advisory Council, as well as the eastern regional director and cultural director for North Homes Children and Family Services, a professional foster care agency.


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Jailing Juvenile Offenders Doesn't Work