Double Jeopardy

           IN JANUARY 1995, the Minnesota Legislature responded to hysteria over rising juvenile crime by enacting a new category of prosecution called Extended Jurisdiction Juvenile (EJJ) status. The new designation meant that some kids would receive two sentences after conviction; one in the juvenile system and one in the adult. If the kid in question broke probation after serving the juvenile sentence, off they would go to serve the adult time. Some politicians couched the provision as tough love, a way to give teenagers one last chance before carting them off to the big house. Others called it a deterrent. But nearly two years and hundreds of convictions later, it appears that the effort is nothing more than a shortcut to hard time for minority youth.

           According to the most recent available statistics from the State Supreme Court Administrator's Office of Research and Evaluation, 90 percent of the 60 teenagers designated as EJJ offenders in Hennepin County during 1995 were minority, most often African American. This figure dwarfs the already disproportionate number of minorities in the state's juvenile detention population; comprising only about 9 percent of the state's population, minority youth represent 40 percent of those held in secure facilities.

           EJJ promises to make the disparity even worse. Hennepin County District Court Judge Charles Porter, chief judge in the county's juvenile division, claims that the reason the EJJ designation is being used in such a skewed manner is that "Many of the EJJ offenses were gang-related activities. A number of them were also drug-related and at this time the drug enforcement activity is going on in the inner city, which is largely minority." According to the state's data, the designation is mainly used on kids sentenced for "crimes against person" such as assault, attempted murder or sexual assault, crimes which obviously cross racial lines. There is no official data separating out the "gang-related" crimes.

           Part of the problem is that there are very few guidelines as to whom should receive the double sentencing. It's largely up to the discretion of prosecutors and judges, who some say are pushing the measure during plea bargains. "We need to look at how these kids get designated," said Deborah Eng, the executive officer at the Minnesota Department of Corrections' Office of Juvenile Release. "We need to ask, are these the kids for whom the law was intended?"

           "It's a different justice system for blacks," said Michael Belton, the assistant director of the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections' Division of Juvenile Probation. "You can predict who's going to get arrested in this society."

           Nobody knows how many of the EJJ kids are actually ending up serving adult sentences. In fact, said Mike Zimmerman, a research and systems technician for Hennepin County, the juvenile corrections data systems he works with can't even identify which kids have been designated EJJ. "We're anticipating a desire for information about the impact of EJJ, but we have nothing readily available," he says. "We're just beginning to do that now."

           The picture doesn't look good though, since there are no programs in place to help kids make the transition to the straight and narrow. Even the committee that recommended that the state implement EJJ recognized that simply hanging tougher penalties on youthful offenders would do nothing to solve the juvenile crime problem. The report, written by the State Supreme Court's Advisory Task Force on the Juvenile Justice System, said very clearly that any reform effort is dependent on "the strengthening of families and communities, and the implementation of prevention and early intervention programs" such as those regarding anger management and conflict resolution.

           While that might seem like so much happy-face talk, something needs to be done; a February 1995 study by the Office of the Legislative Auditor's Program Evaluation Division said that recidivism rates run as high as 90 percent for some of Minnesota's residential treatment facilities. These same institutions now house many of the state's EJJ designates.

           "We have to do better with these EJJ kids and programming," Eng says, "otherwise this EJJ designation will prove to be nothing but a fast track to prison for them."

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