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Officials assess juvenile justice system

WORTHINGTON -- Officials who work in Nobles County's juvenile justice system believe an upcoming assessment will confirm their suspicions -- that there are a disproportionate number of children of color entering the courts system.

What they hope to learn is why there is disparity and, perhaps more importantly, what can be done to keep minorities from becoming criminals.

Nobles County was one of two counties in Minnesota asked to take part in an assessment on minority representation in the juvenile justice system. The assessment will be conducted by the California-based Burns Institute (BI), which is doing a similar project in Ramsey County now. BI will visit Nobles County in mid- to late-March.

On average, one in every 38 youths between the ages of 12 and 18 has served probation in Nobles County for committing some sort of crime. That compares to an average of one of every 42 youths entered in the juvenile justice system statewide.

According to Jon Ramlo, director of Rock-Nobles Community Corrections, juvenile crimes ranged from shoplifting to minor consumption, smoking, assault or some other misdemeanor. He added that a seeming majority of the youths on probation in Nobles County are of races other than Caucasian.

Another surprising trend he's seen is the increase of females committing crimes in the county.

"We're seeing a higher rate of girls in the system, probably in the last four years," said Ramlo, adding that more girls are also being charged with assault crimes. As of Monday, there were 127 juveniles -- both male and female -- serving probation in Nobles County.

Judge Jeffrey Flynn said statistics revealed almost 60 percent of the children who went through Nobles County juvenile court in 2002 were minorities. A year later, nearly 80 percent of the court cases involved juveniles of color.

"That sounds like an oxymoron," said Flynn. "I don't know what the ethnic breakdown is in Nobles County, but I'm sure it's still a white majority."

He quickly followed with, "That doesn't mean more Caucasians or Anglos need to get into trouble."

Why the disparity? Flynn doesn't know, but he's hoping the BI assessment will help shed some light.

"The Burns Institute tries to recognize the issues and they try to promote solutions," Flynn said. "Hopefully, the solutions they have for changes are substantive and things we can actually get our arms around and do."

Those solutions could include a variety of things, including after-school programming for youths of diversity, Ramlo said.

"We can take more preventive than reactive (steps)," he added.

While Ramlo said law enforcement may have concerns the assessment could point fingers to racial profiling, he believes good ideas can be generated from the study.

"It's one way we're approaching the concerns and working to address the issue," Ramlo said.

BI's assessment will involve talks with community corrections, the court system, school officials, law enforcement, social services, the county attorney's office, public defenders and guardian ad litems. Their three-day study in March is a precursor to a possible in-depth, year-long study.

The Nobles County assessment is funded through a $22,500 grant from Minnesota's Juvenile Justice Advisory Council (JJAC) and a $2,500 county match.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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