Community coaches work to keep juvenile offenders out of the penalty box

Meeting with juveniles
Sitting with his wife Lori Merriewether, Glynn Merriewether listens to a juvenile offender during a meeting in Brooklyn Center, Minn. Monday, April 4, 2011. The Merriewethers operate Humble Beginnings, a company that works with state and county agencies to help transition juvenile offenders back into their communities.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Juvenile crime in Hennepin County has dropped by more than 40 percent in the past five years. Officials say one reason for the decline is police patrols of high-crime areas.

They also give credit to community coaches -- people hired by the county to steer young people away from crime. One of the coaches says his past helps him understand the young people he works with.

Devonta, 18, met his community coach at a crossroads in his life.

Devonta, who doesn't want his last name used because of his juvenile record, had his scrape with the law two years ago. He declines to supply details, and juvenile records are not public.

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Devonta says he was running with the wrong crowd. He says his mother, whom he describes as a loving parent, warned him he was headed for trouble.

"She always talked to me every night, sat me down, told me, 'Just stop,'" said Devonta. "She didn't give up on me, it was more like, 'I have to let you learn by yourself, because what I'm saying you think I'm lying, I'm going to let you learn by yourself.'"

Then the court assigned Devonta to Glynn Merriewether, one of Hennepin County's three community coaches.

Devonta, 18, had a brush with the Hennepin County juvenile justice system that brought him into contact with community coach Glynn Merriewether.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"I just felt like didn't nobody care, why should I care," said Devonta. "But when I came across him, it showed me that there's people out here who care about children and do want to see you succeed in life, so that kind of woke me up."

Devonta says he was initially reluctant to go along with the court requirement to work with a community coach.

"First I just wanted to get it done and over with," said Devonta. "But then as I came I got to getting excited, and I learned stuff from him and he kind of had me focused, had me more focused than what I was than when I got out."

Merriewether has counseled teens for nine years. The Eden Prairie resident, 46, is a family man, married with five children. Yet his early years were more troubled.

At 15, he says he moved out of his parents' house because he refused to follow their rules. Like many of his friends growing up on the streets of Detroit, Merriewether says he was arrested. But unlike most of them, he never did jail time.

He moved to Minnesota and married, intending at one point to return to Detroit to make more money.

"When I came across [Merriewether] it showed me that there's people out here who care about children and do want to see you succeed in life."

"And my wife kind of put a kind of fear in me. You know, 'If you go back to Detroit, you'll probably not come back,' and it got me thinking. And I didn't go, and I stayed here and toughed it out," said Merriewether.

Merriewether says he talks to teens about choices they can make that will keep them on the right side of the law. He says many of the kids he works with are focused on instant gratification.

"They're looking at successful people, looking at athletes, and entertainers. ... Not realizing the hard work and the years that go behind it," Merriewether said. "So one of our goals is to show them, 'OK, you like that rap star, for instance, let's do some research on that rap star. When did they start, where did they come from, where was their beginning, how long did it take for them to get to this point,' and try to get them to see some things realistic. ... The value of time and discipline."

He says he works with up to 25 youth at time, mostly male, more than half African-American youth aged 11-17.

Merriewether says about half can't read, or, as he puts it, they've put education on the back burner.

He says some teens are deterred from causing further trouble by having one brush with police and the courts. Others cases are more challenging and the results can be discouraging.

"I think between 80 and 90 percent of the kids we get referred come back to court," said Merriewether.

Still, other measures are more positive. Hennepin County Juvenile Court Judge Lucy Wieland says juvenile crime is down sharply, and one reason for the decline is a reduction in the number of juveniles arrested because they missed their court appearance.

"We've essentially eliminated all of that through court calling. We have a court outreach worker who contacts families. A lot of times we don't have good addresses, so they're not getting the court notice in the first place; we use our community coaches," said Wieland.

Yet Hennepin County still has some troubling trends.

Minority teens account for more than half the young people in the juvenile system, far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. And more than 90 percent of the teens in jail are minorities.

Those disparities are causing judges, prosecutors and police to examine their role in creating the imbalance.

Hennepin county officials got an Annie E. Casey Foundation grant to fund some of their efforts to divert juveniles from the criminal system. The $140,000 grant expired last year. County funds now cover the costs.

The strategy is call the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI. In the previous decade across the country, juvenile detentions were up sharply even as the crime trend began decreasing according to Hennepin County numbers.

Since then, officials say, Hennepin County's detention rate -- the number of juveniles behind bars -- has been cut by more than half, to a point where the average population is 40 young people a day in jail, nearly all of them for serious felony offenses.

The overall number of juveniles in the system has declined from about 2,800 in 2009 to just over 1,900 in 2010.