When Cody Nelson moved out of his St. Paul home in 2007, he was only 14 years old. Originally from Chicago, Nelson didn’t know his father and wasn’t getting along with his mother. So he ran away, began renting an apartment from a slum lord, and paid his rent by robbing, stealing and selling drugs. “It was really immature for me at the time,” he said, “but I was going through the motions of ‘How do I feed myself? How do I sustain myself?’”
Then in 2009, Nelson was charged with three felonies, including first-degree manslaughter, and was incarcerated in the Ramsey County juvenile detention system for three years, followed by two years of probation.
Today, Nelson is a college graduate and a youth worker, but he said most juveniles incarcerated in the state’s detention centers don’t typically make out as well as he did. Last Saturday, he spoke on a panel at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center advocating for change in the state’s treatment of incarcerated youth.
The event — titled the Juvenile Alternatives Community Forum — was hosted by the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, and aimed to tap community input for addressing the disproportionate numbers of African-American youth in the state’s criminal justice system. Nearly 60 percent of youth incarcerated in state facilities are black, according to the latest data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
To address the problem, those who attended the forum suggested things like providing more resources to areas most affected by youth crime, while others suggested reforming the juvenile justice system itself. Organizers will be using the ideas discussed at the Feb. 4 meeting to draft a proposal for both Hennepin and Ramsey counties later this month.
“We decided to put this forum together so we could have some conversations to propose to the county and actually push things forward on what we want to see happen,” said NAACP Minneapolis President Jason Sole. “We’re here to help figure out alternatives for our young people to thrive and to be successful.”
‘More like a prison’
Many who attended Saturday’s discussion believe the state’s juvenile correctional facilities are too punitive and don’t focus enough on rehabilitation.
Prince Corbett, who works as a guidance counselor for Ramsey County Human Services, said that while most facilities say they offer mental health treatment and educational programming, they mostly act as a place to lock up youth until they’re processed by the state — or until they’ve finished serving their sentence. “They call it a treatment center, but it’s more like a prison,” he said.
Both Hennepin County and Ramsey County detention facilities, as well as the state-run Red Wing facility, offer substance-abuse and dependency treatment, as well as educational and rehabilitation programming, and have so for decades. And in detention centers like the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative — where they began a series of new rehabilitation-oriented programs in 2006 — overall juvenile admissions have dropped by 70 percent, with juvenile admissions of color dropping by 65 percent.
Yet Nelson, who circulated through several juvenile facilities during his sentence, said that wasn’t his experience, and the time he spent on rehabilitation during his incarceration was minimal.
“A lot of these institutions aren’t utilizing that time to teach these young men,” Nelson said. “You’re just in a cell; we got to feed you; we got to cloth you; we got to keep you warm. That’s it.”
Addressing root problems
Tonja Honsey ran away from her Albert Lea home at the age of 12 to escape an abusive relationship and was eventually put into foster care. But because she kept running away, she said, the state locked her up in a number of juvenile detention centers and group homes for nearly four years. “I hadn’t been charged with any crime other than running away from home,” she said, “and no one ever asked, ‘Why are you running away from home?’ ”
Now 35, Honsey said it took her decades to realize exactly what happened to her. And she said cases like hers show that Minnesota isn’t doing enough to address the root problems youth may be facing when they enter the criminal justice system.
“Sex trafficking, drugs — they’re doing these things out of survival, not out of a choice,” she said at Saturday’s forum. “We need to give them housing … we need to be able to build them up and teach them their worth.”
Honsey said these issues need to be treated as public health issues rather than criminal justice ones. She wants to see more funding going toward measures that address factors like homelessness, substance abuse and mental health problems.
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature approved $48 million in state funding to go toward mental health initiatives. But Honsey said despite that, too many neighborhoods and schools are relying on the police to deal with youth who are having mental health breakdowns or committing crimes for survival, or because of chemical dependency.
“If a child has mental health issues you’re criminalizing them. If they’re running away from home for an abusive situation you’re criminalizing them. If they’re not going to school for whatever reason you’re criminalizing them,” she said. “Everything is turning into a crime issue instead of a public health issue.”