How Hennepin's director of corrections is approaching youth and carjackings

Law enforcement on the side of a state highway.
A carjacking suspect died and a police dog was injured by gunfire following a pursuit on Feb. 23, 2021, on Minnesota Highway 65 north of the Twin Cities.
Screengrab via KARE 11 | 2021

Two St. Paul teens — Kashawn Wertman, 18, and Nautica Argue, 19 — are facing multiple charges in connection with a January carjacking spree across 15 metro area cities over ten days involving some 27 victims.

There are even younger carjacking suspects who are partially behind a big jump in carjackings in the Twin Cities. In 2021, roughly two-thirds of carjacking cases referred to the Hennepin County Attorney’s office involved juvenile suspects.

Those referred cases represent only about 20 percent of the total number of carjacking cases in the county that year, and there are no arrests in the vast majority of carjackings, so it's difficult to know if juveniles are responsible for the majority of cases. But officials are focused on minors and carjackings.

What exactly is going on with youth and carjackings in Minneapolis? And how is Hennepin County approaching the issue? With more on that is Catherine Johnson. She’s the director of the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation. Before that, she was a Minneapolis police officer for over 20 years, where she rose to the rank of inspector.

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The following is a transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation with the audio player above.

What do you think are the underlying reasons for the leap in carjackings?

If you had the answer to that, I think we could do more in response. I think it's a combination of a multitude of things — the two-year-long pandemic certainly contributing to that.

If you've got kids who are all of a sudden not in school because they're virtual learning, and a parent is trying to work from home and teach school and do all of those other things that are a part of being a parent — or the child is in the home, potentially not supervised, while the parent is working in one of those critical spaces where we need folks to be in person — it creates different opportunities for those youth.

I also think when systems struggle, like the criminal justice system — we, too, are dealing with the constraints of pandemic responses. We have, over the course of the last two years, shifted from spaces where we are largely in person and seeing one another to spaces where we're operating virtually, in everything from schools to court systems. I think that has an impact.

What are the motivations behind holding a gun on someone and stealing their car?

I can only guess. There's certainly the potential for financial gain. There's probably the potential for the adrenaline rush. There's certainly, for some, the pressure to commit those crimes for the benefit of others, whether it be gang involvement or some other kind of criminal organization. Motivations are as varied as the individuals who are participating in the behavior.

Should we be surprised that those arrested are so young?

We'd certainly like to think that young people at that age aren't involved in that kind of behavior. But I have learned over the course of my time in the criminal justice system, whether as a cop or now in the corrections field, anything is possible. You could be surprised by something every day.

Brain development science and research makes it clear the decision-making that someone engages in as a 12-, 13-, even 16-, 17-, 19-, 20-year-old — those are different decision-making capacities. [Youth are] more likely to take risks, more likely to gain engage in behavior that is pressured by peers or others that [they] are looking up to. It's difficult for a 12- or 13-year-old to understand consequences beyond the immediacy of whatever action they might be engaged in.

Public reaction has focused on why there aren't more severe consequences on kids involved in carjackings. Why not crack down on them?

We have a goal here — it’s in [the] name: Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation. Most people who commit crimes return to the community. In most cases, particularly in the state of Minnesota, people who are convicted of felony offenses are sentenced to probation, not to prison. Our job in corrections is to do our best to help them be prepared for that return to community.

What we know from the research is that — in general, obviously not for everybody, but in general — that tends to work better from a recidivism lens and from a future public safety lens. If we can engage people successfully in the supports necessary to change those behaviors, then we can improve public safety for the long term [and] the remainder of that person's life.

According to Hennepin County reports, many juveniles released from the juvenile detention center are charged with a new crime that sends them back within a few years. Why do you think that is?

That's the magic question. If we could figure out that answer, we would be at a far lower recidivism rate.

It’s one of the reasons why we try to get kids out of the juvenile detention center. Because what the research does tell us is that for youth — particularly youth who in a lot of cases have experienced a wide array of traumas, who have lived with trauma and have developed as a result of the trauma — being in a detention center is detrimental and actually can create worse outcomes for those youth [and for public safety], particularly the longer they stay.

So while there are certainly youth for whom [detention] is the solution, because the danger to public safety is simply too great, for many youth, the solution is: How do we move them out of the detention center and get them connected to the resources that they actually need to start promoting that behavior change?

[That’s] the role of probation. It's the role of community providers who are focused on cognitive-behavioral interventions, who are focused on mental health treatment, who are focused on chemical dependency treatment. And frankly, we don't have enough mental health spaces for youth. We don't have enough chemical dependency treatment spaces for youth. There's a whole host of resource needs that extend beyond just the criminal justice system.

Your department is making an investment in community groups that can identify kids on the cusp of entering the system and act as violence interrupters. Why do you think that might offer some hope?

To be very blunt, I'm a white kid from the suburbs. I don't know what it's like to be a kid of color growing up in the north side of Minneapolis. I don't know what the pressures are of that; I don't know what the traumas are for our kids who are, by and large, kids of color, who are impacted by the system both as those who are committing criminal behaviors [and] as those who are being victimized.

Reaching out to those folks who understand in ways that I cannot, in ways that many of my staff cannot, is vital to making the connections that we need to facilitate that behavior change. We Push for Peace and A Mother's Love, which are the two organizations that you're referring to, have a track record of connecting with folks who are in those kinds of circumstances — on the cusp of violence, or even involved in the violence, and trying to find ways out.

We've contracted with them to try and help those kids who are already on probation, those kids who have entered the system, those kids who maybe have entered the system for a non-violent offense but we can sort of read the tea leaves, or try to. [These groups can provide] a mentor — someone who gives these youth the [perspective of]: “This is what can happen. I was in your shoes, and here is how I walked away from those spaces and have created a safe space for myself.”

When do you think the tide of carjackings might ebb a bit?

My hope is soon. There is certainly a great deal of work being done by everyone in the justice system, from law enforcement to corrections. I think looking at data is important. I think asking community and asking those who are engaged in this behavior what it is that they need to do something different [is important]. What is it that the community needs for support? And what [do] those young people — some of them juvenile, some of them adults — what do those young people need to change their behavior? I think those are the keys to moving beyond where we are right now.

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