Christian Bonner was 14 when St. Paul police first arrested him for fighting in school.
"One day I kinda lost it and I went and fought a kid. And the police got called on me," said Bonner, who is black. "And then I flipped out on the police."
Angry, Bonner lost control and fought back. That mistake led to a week-long stint in the Hennepin County juvenile detention center, where the environment shocked him. Guards required him to undress and shower in front of them. He stayed in a cell that Bonner said looked like jail.
Prosecutors charged Bonner with assault with a deadly weapon – a baseball bat. A judge released him on two years probation. But Bonner said he didn’t understand what that meant, and within weeks violated the probation terms by going outside the geographic boundaries assigned by an officer.
Another judge sent Bonner to a youth correctional facility in Buhl, Minnesota, where he remained for 12 months.
"I thought I was never going to get out," he said.
Bonner’s history of interactions with the state juvenile justice system is not unique, according to "On the Level," a new report from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. It details how the state system is plagued by racial inequalities worse than other Midwestern states or other states of Minnesota’s size.
It paints the picture of a system that is much more severe on minority children, with more arrests, more prosecutions, and more time in detention.
The report, funded by $13,500 from a U.S. Department of Justice grant, found that minority children are subject to higher numbers of arrests and prosecutions, and spend more time in detention.
Among its findings:
In Minnesota, young people of color are more than three times more likely to be arrested for a delinquency offense than whites. Black teens, in particular, are more than six times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.
Young people of color are more than one and a half times more likely to be sent to detention facilities than whites. American Indian teens are detained at nearly four times the rate of white youth.
Minority teens are more than four times more likely than whites to be prosecuted as adults, and black teens are more than six times more likely to be prosecuted in adult court than whites.
Under state law, the juvenile justice system applies to youth 10 to 17.
There are about 573,000 in that age group in Minnesota, according to the 2010 Census; about 78 percent were white, 8 percent black, and 7 percent Latino. Asian and American Indian youth combined made up 7 percent.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, director of the University of St Thomas’ civil rights legal clinic, the Community Justice Project, said the report’s findings show Minnesota isn’t treating children like children.
"There is a need for the public to decide that they’re ready to tackle this issue in a more serious manner," she said. "There is a need for investigation as well as some accountability to ensure that there is equity in terms of the use of discretion by law enforcement."
The report also shows that Minnesota has failed to gather even basic information on what is causing the racial inequalities in juvenile charges and sentencing, Levy-Pounds said. Local law enforcement agencies in Minnesota are not required to record or report the race of people they stop.
Hastings Police Chief Paul Schnell, one of the directors of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said people might look at the numbers and conclude that law enforcement officials are making decisions solely based on race. But he said there’s no data to support that.
Instead, Schnell said the inequalities detailed in the report are caused by a host of complex and challenging issues. They need to be studied in order for local law enforcement to understand how to change policing strategies, he said.
"And that I think has led to some level of – I wouldn’t say resistance, but concern – on the part of law enforcement leadership to say ‘how is it that we do this without creating a level of bureaucracy that could be a greater challenge?’" Schnell said.
Some children go into juvenile detention because they don’t have a safe place to stay and someone who can be relied upon to bring them to a court appointment, said Lisa McNaughton, managing attorney of Hennepin County’s juvenile public defender’s office.
"If they walk into court and they’re telling me that my mom or somebody will be there with me and then they walk into the courtroom and there’s no one there, that’s one of the most sad things you ever see is that’s child look of disappointment," McNaughton said. "And obviously if there isn’t a parent there to take the child home, it’s much more difficult to get that child returned back into the community because the court doesn’t know where they’d be sending the child."
County attorneys can decide to divert teens out of the justice system even if there’s enough evidence to prosecute them. They’re not required to report why or when they make those decisions, said Cheryl Kreager, director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Minnesota, a group of juvenile justice-related professionals and state agencies.
"We don’t know how many young people receive diversion," she said. "We don’t know reasons why a young person may or may not receive diversion."
Some county attorneys said collecting information about why they send some kids into the judicial system and not others would take too much time and money.
"It just isn’t as simple as it might sound," said Jon Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. "And it comes at a time in which local units of government are being pressed because of the current state budget deficit and the projected budget deficit. And I think we need to weigh the cost of collecting this data versus what is the anticipated outcome or goal of collecting this data."
Either way, Christian Bonner said a rehabilitative program worked for him. A new St Paul program called Brotherhood that offers counseling and support for young black men accepted him last December. Bonner graduated from high school and at 19 is enrolled in Saint Paul College. He wants to study culinary arts.
But Bonner recently had another brush with the system. While walking home through a St Paul neighborhood where there’d recently been drug arrests, two officers in a patrol car stopped him.
"They said, ‘do you have drugs on you? What are you coming from? Where do you live?’" Bonner recalled. "And I started freaking out. My first instinct was to take off running."
Bonner’s mother came outside, talked with the officers and helped to calm things down. But the experience made Bonner realize something: he has no reason to run.
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