Since before John Choi became Minnesota’s Ramsey County Attorney in 2011 — back when he was a city attorney for St. Paul, the county seat — he’s been thinking critically about the criminal justice system in America. “There’s a very dangerous assumption that whatever we do works, that somehow truth and justice will always prevail in the process,” he says. “But the current system we have is not that effective. There are huge racial disparities. We [have a] better understanding of the collateral consequences of a conviction and how that holds people back rather than helps them. Our traditional system just doesn’t produce what we think it does.”
“I used to think that it was my job to go out and educate the public under the assumption that everything we do is generally good, but now I’ve come to believe that my job is to be in community, learn from community perspectives, and be intentional about bringing that perspective to the table,” Choi adds.
Today, his philosophy is being put into action. Since July, Ramsey County has been experimenting with using a three-person “collaborative review team” to help determine the outcomes for youth who run afoul of the law.
The work is part of Choi’s larger, big-picture effort to extract the inequities and injustices that are baked into the youth criminal justice system.
“We recognize and acknowledge that the justice system has produced certain things that are good, but at the same time we have to recognize that it has also produced things that are bad for the community like over-incarceration,” Choi says.
Youth cases referred to the county attorney’s office for prosecution disproportionately involve African American males. Of the 1,450 youth referred in 2020, 1,059 were male, and 941 of them were African American. Further, from 2010 to 2019, 60% of youth who came in contact with the county’s criminal justice system had just one referral. However, 31% saw two to five referrals, 7% had six to 12 referrals, and 1%, or 230 youth, had 12 or more referrals.
Armed with this information and a growing understanding of the long-term impacts of convictions, Choi’s department launched (Re)Imagining Justice For Youth in 2019. The review team falls under that umbrella and is a test of alternatives to the traditional court system for young people.
The collaborative review team has a representative from the county attorney’s office, a public defender, and a community member. Brenda Burnside, who has a background in dispute resolution, special education and restorative community work, is that community member.
They meet twice a week for two hours, tackling roughly five cases at a time. Burnside prefers to first discuss the individual child at hand rather than the facets of the case. “So often we hear that harm has been done or whatever the crime or charge is first, and it’s hard for us to view that young person as a child in a stage of development,” she says.
The group then runs through a series of questions designed to tease out background context — whether or not there’s trauma present or inequities at play. “Do they have access to all of the things they need to be successful? Where do they live? If a kid is truant for example, are there buses or transportation available for them to go to school?” Burnside asks. “Other inequities might be if they’re homeless. How profiled or targeted are these young people?”
Another variable that the team considers is the extent of family support. Burnside often calls family members of the accused to get as complete of an understanding as possible.
Once the group feels like they have a solid understanding of the case from all angles, they recommend recourse. Depending on the level of harm caused and the needs of the youth, cases can be referred back to the family for domestic handling, case management services like addiction treatment, or to pre- or post-charge restorative justice opportunities. The last option is the traditional court process.
As of February, the team has reviewed 146 cases, and just 11 have been sent to the courts so far. Case management and restorative justice work is handled by organizations contracting with the attorney’s office.
Of the cases that have not been sent to the courts, two made the front page of Minneapolis Star-Tribune in October under the bold headline “Crime — but no punishment.”
The story features a 16-year-old who stole a car with a dog in it after a separate case of theirs went through the diversion program in July and was ultimately charged, or “petitioned to court” in the parlance of the county’s juvenile system. Because of the serious circumstances of the 16-year-old’s new auto theft, this case skipped the collaborative review and went straight to court. In August the young person pleaded guilty in both cases and has been serving a sentence at a nearby correctional facility since.
The story also highlights a grandmother who was disappointed that her grandson, who has an opioid addiction and was cited for robbing an Uber driver, wasn’t sent to jail, but put through the county’s diversion program instead. Some high-profile figures from law enforcement are not happy, either. Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher alleged in an October 14 letter to Choi that he wasn’t briefed on the collaborative review team before September. (Choi says that law enforcement was invited to participate on multiple occasions.) Fletcher urged Choi to suspend the program.
St. Paul Councilmember Mitra Jalali supports it.
“County Attorney Choi’s work to break punitive cycles of prosecution that set our youth and communities back is important and highly necessary,” she says. “Instead of just throwing people away, we should be connecting them to resources that help them make better and different choices in addition to holding them accountable.”
Choi stresses that his office reserves all final decision-making on cases, and that the pilot is about replacing an adversarial system with a collaborative one. Rather than relying solely on information from the police and what’s turned over by the defense, Choi sees the collaborative review process as an opportunity for both sides to work together to achieve the most effective outcome for the youth and the community on a case-by-case basis.
“Can’t we be about better outcomes for everybody involved — meaning the person who was harmed, the person who is accused of harming someone, and ultimately, the people who surround them?”
Choi’s office is working with a University of Minnesota researcher to measure the pilot’s outcomes and expect to have data to share soon about the impact to date.
This text was updated to correct the date of when Choi ‘s department launched (Re)Imagining Justice For Youth.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.