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Re-Imagining Youth Justice in Ramsey County

By John Choi, Brenda Burnside, Dr. Tamara Mattison and Kara Beckman

It has often been said that the definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. This is why we have spent the past four years, together with additional community and system leaders in Ramsey County, engaged in an examination of the youth legal system to learn from the experiences of people in our community, research on youth development and best practices, past data, and the perspectives of those involved in working with young people.

What we have begun to reckon with in those four years is that the traditional ‘juvenile justice’ system has not, in fact, produced safety and justice for all. While its legal purpose was designated as rehabilitation, its adversarial nature and focus on administering consequences to deter future harmful behavior has produced significant racial disparities with respect to which youth are referred to the justice system; high rates of re-referral for Black, Latino, and Indigenous youth; profound and sometimes lifelong collateral consequences; and has too often led to further legal system involvement in adulthood. Many community members, including those of us helping lead this work, have long seen the harm young people experience when they are involved with the legal system at a young age. We are asking ourselves and each other: can we accomplish accountability without punishment? Do we have to hurt people who hurt people to teach them that hurting people is wrong? Or is there another way? What do those who have been most impacted want and need? If people have been harmed (victims), what do they need to repair that harm and heal? How can we respond in a way that helps young people develop empathy and participate in meaningful accountability to prevent the harm from recurring, and enhance community safety and well-being?

In short, can we (re)imagine justice for youth?

After much reflection and planning to develop a shared vision, we launched a new process for responding to youth referred to the legal system in Ramsey County in July 2021. In the new approach, community representatives help determine how best to respond, and provide the responses in the form of community-based accountability, including restorative justice. Our hope is to increase the frequency with which young people have opportunities to repair harm, and learn to take accountability for their

mistakes. Extensive evidence from both practice and research indicate this will improve the health and well-being of our youth, families and community.

Restorative processes, such as Circle, include asking questions that lead to reflection, deep listening and shared planning about what is needed. For example, when young people are referred to restorative justice, we ask them to name who was impacted by their actions. As we talk that through, young people begin to see the ripples of their actions and the impact on not just themselves or the person they hurt, but also on our community. This process of listening, both to what people say and do not say, is much

more powerful than making statements. It develops relationships, trust, and a belief that by working together, we can resolve the situation. When we rely on accountability provided by community members, relationships continue with youth and their families such that they can come back if other needs arise, including if they need help resolving additional harmful actions.

Learn more about this Ramsey County effort by viewing the video below.

We want the broader Ramsey County and Minnesota communities to be aware of and involved in helping us ensure our vision reaches its potential. In April 2023, in keeping with our promise of transparency, we updated our website and posted an evaluation report that describes our approach, history, stories and results of the first year. The report notes that, compared with data from before this process launched, more young people were both offered and succeeded in community-based accountability, and racial disparities decreased significantly in both. In addition, our youngest youth, those with multiple referrals and those identified as Black or Indigenous all outperformed our baseline data. While these are clearly preliminary findings, we are excited that the data show we are moving in the right direction. We are also encouraged by the fact that 81% of cases resolved in community successfully engaged the young person’s family in their accountability. And while we are still working on improving quantitative data on how victims were served, we have powerful stories from some of those who engaged and described it as a transformative experience for them.

We know this journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and it requires long-term engagement both on the part of those of us leading this work, and also on the part of our collective community. We all need to commit to do better for our youth, and to rely on research, listen to impacted community members, and engage in ongoing evaluation and continuous improvement. As we work collaboratively to make better decisions, we ask people to stick with us. We especially appreciate the numerous and varied contributions of those who have been involved with our leadership team, collaborative review team,

and community-based providers partnering with us to restoratively respond to young people. Together, we will continue to improve our responses to young people and enhance the health, safety, and well-being of our youth and our community.

John Choi is the Ramsey County Attorney.

Brenda Burnside is a restorative practitioner, founder and CEO of Let’s Circle Up, and community representative on the collaborative review team, which is comprised of an assistant county attorney, public defender and community member, who review legal referrals together and make recommendations about responses that are more restorative, community-led and developmentally appropriate.

Dr. Tamara Mattison is a restorative practitioner and circle keeper, and founder and CEO of Generation to Generation, a community provider of restorative justice responses for the RJY initiative.

Kara Beckman, MA, is a researcher/evaluator in the University of Minnesota Medical School, has been the research partner for the (re)imagining justice for youth initiative, and is lead author of the RJY Year 1 evaluation report.

Members of the (Re)Imagining Justice for Youth leadership team included representatives from the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, Corrections and Social Services, along with members of the Public Defender’s Office, community restorative practitioners, and University of Minnesota researchers/evaluators.

Note from the MNJRC: If you or someone you know are leading innovative efforts to re-imagine how we administer justice in our community, please share your ideas with us. If you are interested in writing a blog post, please email us at


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