Hennepin County responds to letter calling for action from juvenile justice system over COVID-19

Thursday, Hennepin County leaders responded to a letter sent by the Legal Rights Center and community leaders urging action to protect youth in Minnesota's juvenile justice system amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the letter sent Monday, community members expressed concern about the ability of juvenile facilities to effectively follow public health experts' recommendations to combat COVID-19 and about their transparency in what steps they are taking to protect young people.

In response, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Catherine Johnson and Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson said the county's entire juvenile justice system "remains committed to preserving the health and safety, as well as the constitutional rights, of all whom we serve. And we can assure you that we are not leaving these vulnerable youth of our community behind."

The Hennepin County leaders said they and their justice system partners continue to closely monitor the pandemic and implement preventative measures as needed, which can be daily or even hourly. With that in mind, they said it's difficult to consistently share what measures they're taking because they may no longer be current by the time many plans are released. They also said they can't share full details of emergency operation plans, but shared some of the measures they're taking, which are listed below.

Community calls for action from state's juvenile justice system during COVID-19 pandemic

Minneapolis police said law enforcement has shifted to provide services where they are now needed most, such as transitioning school resource officers from schools to food pantries and other spaces. The department also said the pandemic has created a severe shortage in the number of emergency shelter beds available for youth who've been assaultive, forcing officers to bring them to the juvenile detention center rather than an alternative site.

The Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center said efforts are being taken to limit the number of youth in the facility, but as violent crimes occur there are few other alternatives. However, youth at the center have access to on-site health and wellbeing services, educational services and programming. Those educational services will shift to distance learning on April 6 in accordance with Gov. Tim Walz's order regarding schools.

Additionally, the Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation has suspended in-person visits and, for that reason, youth are being allowed to make additional calls. Finally, the detention center has also implemented additional cleaning throughout each day and youth are receiving daily education about proper hygiene and preventative measures to combat COVID-19.

The Juvenile Court said a standing order has been issued memorializing certain procedures and policies, in part prioritizing the use of technology to facilitate the continued work of the court while still protecting the community. A daily conference call with leadership and stakeholders is conducted to address any other issues or concerns that arise.

Authorities said they're also working to identify youth that could be safely released back into the community with detention alternatives, such as electronic home monitoring, to reduce the detention center's population. Out-of-custody hearings have also been rescheduled and the Hennepin County Attorney's Office is developing a process to reach out to youth and their family to offer post-charge diversion as soon as possible, the letter said.

According to the letter, most in-person probation meetings have also been suspended and changed to virtual meetings and juvenile probation fees were suspended through the end of April. The county is also working with service providers to ensure youth and their families continue to receive necessary support.

Hennepin County Home School suspended out-of-county admissions to limit the number of youth and virtual services are being offered. It will also be moving to distance learning on April 6 in accordance with Gov. Walz's order on schools. Like the detention center, in-person visiting has been suspended and cleaning measures have been ramped up.

The letter ends with leaders saying anyone with questions should immediately reach out to them as they continue to navigate uncertain times during the pandemic.

You can see the full letter here.