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Advocating for youth in the justice system

Five people sit in chairs on a stage with a screen describing the panel behind them. Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty stands off to the right at a podium.
Youth advocates and policymakers gathered at Open Book in Minneapolis on Feb1 to discuss the juvenile justice system.

On Thursday, community members and policy makers gathered for a Youth Justice Symposium at Open Book in Minneapolis.  The day-long event was led by Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty and Administrator of the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Liz Ryan, and featured several panels with federal, state, and local representatives. 

Moriarty said the goal of the symposium was to open up discussions traditionally held amongst policy makers to include advocates who are working in community. She said it’s crucial, particularly for young people who have been harmed by a justice system that failed them.

“Looking back at my first year, I've read paperwork on a number of cases where I look and I see, ‘this kid failed this,’ or ‘this kid failed that,’ and we failed that kid,” said Moriarty. 

Director of Community Affairs of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office Jennifer White says we should shift our focus to what leads our young people into the justice system. 

“We always say in our community, it takes a village. So it really does start that home, and in the community, in the neighborhoods, in the schools. But when that might not be working or there needs to be more interventions, that's where I think systems partners need to come into play here,” she said.

White says she believes that if policymakers and community advocates can come together to focus on preventative solutions, and rehabilitation rather than punishment, the state of Minnesota will see great positive change. 

“Those of us who are able to be inside the systems, we have to work collaboratively to make that change happen. And system change is slow, and it does take a lot of time. But I've been working in government for 20 years, and I have seen a lot of positive movement,” said White. “And really, we help shift that narrative by sharing the stories of people who've been impacted by it, and how they've been able to make the changes that we want to see. Everyone has a role to play, whether you're inside the system, whether you're in community, whether you're in the family, whether you're in the schools, faith communities – we all play a role and really need to work together.”


YouthLink Youth Council Program Coordinator KJ Rolenc experienced the juvenile system and the adult prison system first hand. He says those experiences inspired his current work with disadvantaged youth. Rolenc says his experience taught him that one’s relationship to power is what motivates people to do good or bad. He says creating more opportunities for disadvantaged youth to engage with power structures in a positive way will help them to make better decisions. 

Rolenc led a Voice of Youth Advisory Council at YouthLink. He says young participants were eager to take initiative in expressing their hopes for policy procedures, programs, and partnerships within the organization, in hopes to mobilize change.

“The council goes out and seeks organizations that they want to partner with when there are policy changes that need to be made in the organization. And [the youth] were the ones that were able to get that first stamp on saying, this is what it should look like, these are policy changes that we want, these are programs that we want to be brought in,” said Roulenc. “And then, some of those partnerships – like with the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example – they’re getting opportunities that they've never had before. They are getting to go courtside and meet NBA players. So it’s transformative.”


Many at the symposium wanted to know how the abundance of information being shared could become something greater than just a powerful discussion. Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty assured participants that Minnesotans will hear new youth justice programs proposed in the upcoming legislative session, focused on finding appropriate placements for youth who may not be safe in their own home.

“We're going to be advocating that we need programs in the community–in the person's community, and a step down program, so that they can get the services that they need, whatever those are, while developing those strong supportive relationships–so that they have that support system. That's something that we really need to do.”


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