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Two years later, a look at life without the Olmsted County JDC

“There are over 70 counties in the state of Minnesota that don't have a juvenile detention center and they work through similar challenges,” said Travis Gransee, Olmsted County's deputy administrator of health, housing and human services. “We are one more county that is a county without a JDC.

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The Olmsted County Juvenile Detention Center Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin file photo

ROCHESTER — For many in Rochester, a trip to the Twin Cities metro can mean a day of fun — a sporting event, a concert or a trip to the Mall of America. But for a small number of young people, the trip to the metro is a long drive to the nearest juvenile detention facility.

In April 2020, Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections announced that the 16-bed Olmsted County Juvenile Detention Center, which had been open for more than two decades, would close.

The two years since the decision was announced haven’t been without their difficulties, as stakeholders say they felt they weren’t involved in the decision and the reality of not having a secure detention facility in the region has set in.

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The closure of the Rochester facility two years ago means that when a young person is being incarcerated in the early stages of their involvement in the criminal legal system, they are sent to facilities in Dakota or Anoka counties.

Long drives to transport juveniles to the metro area detention facilities sometimes take two law enforcement members off their normal shifts, limited space and a feeling of catch-and-release are among the challenges stakeholders list. But better compliance with federal regulations, a more holistic approach to addressing troubled youth and the move away from damaging incarceration are seen as benefits of the change.

“There are over 70 counties in the state of Minnesota that don't have a juvenile detention center, and they work through similar challenges,” said Travis Gransee, Olmsted County's deputy administrator of health, housing and human services. “We are one more county that is a county without a JDC.

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“Maybe it has been a little bit harder because we used to have one versus those 70-plus counties that never did," he said.

In the time since the closure, community corrections has learned a lot and worked hard to enhance relationships with community partners to provide other resources to get away from a more punitive approach for juveniles to a more holistic approach, according to Nikki Niles, director of DFO Community Corrections.

“Whether that is support with education, mental health, behavioral things, we’ve learned a lot since closure of JDC and reallocated those resources in a more productive way,’" she said.

The decision

The closure left some feeling like the decision was an edict handed down.

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Olmsted County District Court Judge Kevin Lund, who handles a majority of juvenile cases, said he felt there should have been a more robust discussion about the greater good that such a facility served. And if discussion ultimately led to the same result, Lund said how could the county — known historically as the gold standard for community corrections — might create their own innovative approach.

Closing the JDC, while presented generally at the time as a financial decision, might have also been spurred by attitude and policy shifts over the last decade that show incarcerating kids doesn’t help them. But for some kids charged with serious crimes, like armed robbery or murder, there may not be another option.

Most stakeholders involved with juveniles in the criminal court system agree that incarceration is rarely the optimal choice, but sometimes it is necessary.

The closure impacted more than Olmsted County. Many of the youths being detained there were from other nearby counties. With its closure went the only juvenile detention center in the Third Judicial District, which covers 11 counties in Southeast Minnesota.

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The county charged $295 per day for holding youth from other counties, which didn’t come close to covering local costs, county officials said at the time.

Attorney Janet Krueger, who works as the main juvenile public defender in Olmsted County, said it wasn’t “all bad'' that there are not as many options for residential placements, whether it's the JDC or some other facility. But the need is still out there for some youths and there aren't good alternatives.

Thomas Gort, Senior Assistant Olmsted County Attorney who handles the juvenile caseload, said while there wasn’t a lot of time to plan for the change, there was work already underway to create and expand juvenile detention alternatives.

Gort said substantively there hasn’t been much change to the work he does. The goal of the juvenile justice system remains to change behavior in youth before they become 18.

“Holding them in custody, generally, isn't the best way to accomplish that,” he said. “There certainly have been and will be times that it continues to be frustrating that there isn’t another option available, but not having the JDC as an option is equally frustrating as not having other community-based options for youth, not having as many mental health or chemical treatment options available.”

A philosophical alignment

Gransee said that philosophically, community corrections, law enforcement and the courts may not have all been aligned on who should be held at the JDC previously. And every year, community corrections, which oversaw the juvenile detention center and its employees, would receive a letter from the federal government listing juveniles it determined were inappropriately detained at the facility.

“There were kids held at our JDC that should not have been held there, and the federal government reminded us of that every year,” Gransee said. “We had made considerable progress and it was still a practice that still got used.”

While the letter carried no immediate punitive action, if enough juvenile detention facilities in the state received similar warnings of infractions, it could have reduced the amount of funding that came into the state.

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As a judge, Lund said having a secure facility “was of great benefit in a number of circumstances where we had to keep young people safe from themselves.”

“I think people tend to look at a juvenile detention center, you know, as simply a jail-like facility, and it has that aspect to it. There's no doubt about that. But its utilization is beyond incarcerating a young person,” he said.

Lund said he's learned in his career that a short-term detention, even of a few hours, can stop a youth’s delinquent behavior.

“People argue it's harsh, but I've seen it work. I've seen kids that have spent a few hours in a detention facility, and I never see them again,” he said. “But I think in some instances, it slows young people down, and it's grounding and it allows a variety of other services to be implemented. And done more quickly, when they're here, locally.”

Using a detention facility as a place for a break or pause in a young person’s life isn’t the answer, though, according to Niles. Incarceration can cause further harm and trauma while a youth is already in distress.

“Brick and mortar in Olmsted County, that is not the resolution," Niles said. "It just continues to build and snowball from that one experience, being incarcerated, the trauma and all of the harm that comes from that. We’ve really tried to focus on truly allocating the proper resource when the juvenile needs the break."

For those youths still needing incarceration, there are facilities in the state. But Krueger said who gets held is having an impact on some of her clients' mentalities, thinking that because they aren’t immediately detained, nothing will happen to them.

“Their behaviors end up escalating because they don't think there’s going to be any consequences,” Krueger said. “And sometimes by the time we impose consequences, things have gotten really dangerous, either for them or their community.”

The road to the JDC

It is hard to separate some of the impacts of the closure of the juvenile detention center and the COVID-19 pandemic, as the two events occurred around the same time.

As court functions were halted and transitioned to virtual hearings, the need to transport juveniles back and forth from out-of-county detention facilities, while burdensome, is relatively minimal. When a juvenile is arrested and detained, they are taken to Dakota County or Anoka County.

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The closure of the Olmsted County Juvenile Detention Center two years ago means that when a young person is being incarcerated in the early stages of their involvement in the criminal legal system, they are sent to facilities in Dakota or Anoka counties.
Andrew Link / Post Bulletin

In 2021, the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office made 14 trips to out-of-county juvenile detention centers. Those 14 trips amounted to 2,916 miles and 102 deputy hours.

During that same time frame, the Rochester Police Department transported 17 juveniles. The department did not provide a breakdown of miles or how many hours that amounted to for officers.

When the courts again open fully, and if they do away with virtual hearings, it is unclear what will happen to the number of transports required. Lund said that when more people and hearings are allowed to take place in person, he’ll insist that young people appear in person.

Rochester police Capt. Aaron Penning said that when police transport a juvenile to a detention facility, it requires two officers. Officers have also run into issues when facilities have been full.

“That leaves a patrol officer with the detained or arrested juvenile needing a safe place for them,” Penning said. “The backseat of a police car is not a permanent solution.”

Officers are always evaluating when an interaction with law enforcement needs to turn into an arrest. Penning said it was not an officer's job to say, “You are going to jail tonight out of a punishment.

“With juveniles, we look at some of those crimes when they have a family unit or safe place they can go — sometimes the non-custodial decision is the right decision,” he said. "We do get some of those cases, even communicating with family, (when) we know the only safe option is a juvenile going to a facility.”

In addition to just the physical distance causing logistical difficulties for law enforcement, some say it makes it harder to build necessary relationships.

Krueger said part of her work as a defense attorney is building relationships with the kids and their families, getting to know them and trying to figure out how to resolve things in a way that makes things better.

“It's very difficult to get to know someone if you can't sit down and talk to them face-to-face,” she said.

That face-to-face interaction is something Lund said is one of the most important things — helping him to get a sense of a young person’s circumstances and what led them to that point in their life.

“And taking the JDC away — plus the fog of COVID, and the Zoom world that we unfortunately live in — has made that kind of interaction difficult, if not impossible,” Lund said.

The solution?

The solution may be is still in the works.

For Krueger, at least part of the solution is increasing spending statewide on youths who would classify as delinquent kids. Part of that solution, she said, is reducing the waiting list to get a child into services.

“I think a lot of people would tell you that they agree that juvenile incarceration is not generally a good thing and shouldn't be a long-term thing,” she said.

For Lund, the solution is a facility in the community that is a combination of a juvenile detention center and youth shelter. It’s an idea he’s floated for years, spoken about at public gatherings, and even selected a location — the former downtown Rochester Lourdes High School building.

Lund envisions a supervised facility with a home-like feel that allows youths in need to be assessed and catch their breath within the community to make it easier for families and other support networks to maintain contact.

“It's a multifaceted issue when you start talking about juvenile justice,” he said.

Niles said in the two years since the JDC has been closed, community corrections has learned a lot and has worked to think outside of the box when it comes to juvenile corrections. Some of that has been a reallocation of resources or the creation of a specialized teams to address certain issues like the family violence response team.

The team pulls together social workers, probation officers and public defenders when an incident occurs with the goal of keeping the child in the home or community if possible, and connecting them and their families with the necessary resources.

“We’ve really been forced — but happily — to think outside of the box and transition from a punitive response to a holistic family response,” Niles said.

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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