It’s tough to pinpoint what’s driving the increase in serious juvenile crime in the Twin Cities — the contributing factors don’t fit neatly together like a well-made jigsaw puzzle.
One thing that’s very clear to 19-year-old Tre Morgan, is that the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd in May have had a very unsettling effect on a lot of young people.
“It’s just so chaotic with everything happening just in one year alone,” he said.
This year has seen more young people under the age of 18 charged with serious crimes than in the past two years.
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In the first nine months of 2020, juvenile felony charges in Hennepin County increased by nearly 17 percent over the same period last year. In Ramsey County, the number of felony charges grew by 7 percent.
Morgan, who grew up in Minneapolis with his mother and two younger brothers, knows firsthand about juvenile crime and its consequences. Two or three years ago, he said, he lost several friends to gun violence. Morgan “bottled up” his trauma and “fell off track” with his life and education. He feels like he was on a path to prison before he joined the Man Up Club, a mentoring program which serves mostly young black men.
Morgan said the pandemic and the unrest following Floyd’s killing gave license to young people who didn’t have “good intentions” to act out.
“I feel like that was the chance for them to go get into something and I believe that’s the reason why we’ve had so much trouble and spike in crime,” he said.
The overall increase in crime this year includes a wave of homicides in Minneapolis. At least seven people under the age of 18 have been shot to death in the city so far this year. That tally has already surpassed the number of minors killed by gun violence in 2019.
Last month, Minneapolis police say an afternoon dispute between two groups of people erupted into a shooting. Two males were wounded. One of them, 16-year-old DaVontae Rayvion Wallace, died at the scene.
North Community High School Principal Mauri Friestleben knew him.
“I can’t speak on everything he may have or not been involved in, but I can tell you when school was in session he was here,” said Friestleben. “He was here on a daily basis. He was in class. He was staying late to finish assignments. He was in the library reading books.”
Friestleben was recalling a time before the pandemic forced the district to close schools and have students learn remotely. After the school went to distance learning, Friestleben said, it was hard to keep Wallace engaged.
Wallace was one of six students Friestleben knows who have been shot this year. But his has been the only fatality in that group.
Friestleben, who has been critical of the district’s decision to remove resource officers from schools, has said the lack of police officers on patrol has also made conditions less safe for young people.
Minneapolis City Council member Phillipe Cunningham, who represents part of the city’s north side, chairs the council’s public safety committee. He said schools are often the safest places for children to be.
“Research actually shows that the longer that young people are physically present and engaged in school the less likely they are to engage in violence and be victims and perpetrators of violence,” he said.
However, it may be too simplistic to blame the number of juvenile felony charges on the George Floyd killing or the pandemic.
Before the pandemic led to the shut down of schools and other public places, felony prosecutions of juveniles were already at their highest levels.
Over the first three months of this year, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office issued 366 juvenile felony charges. That number is 85 percent higher than the number of charges filed during the same period last year.
Tom Arneson, managing attorney of the juvenile prosecution division at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, said the increase was driven by auto thefts.
Robberies by juveniles, which includes carjackings, are also up 10 percent over this time last year. They include an attack by a group of teenagers on several businesses at the intersection of 48th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis in September. Incidents like those prompted City Council members to press police Chief Medaria Arradondo about what the department is doing to address this type of crime. Arradondo has said the suspects, who were high school students, have been arrested.
However, charges for less serious crimes have dropped. In Ramsey County, the number of misdemeanor charges filed against minors decreased by more than 55 percent compared to 2019. That drop was less sharp in Hennepin County. The county saw a decrease between 2019 and 2020 of nearly 22 percent.
Arneson said it's possible the level of misdemeanor crimes were affected by the pandemic shut downs.
“A lot of our malls were closed,” he said. “And so we saw a big decrease in shoplifting offenses.”
Arneson added that as with long-term trends with adult crime, juvenile crime and violence has been going down over the last five to 10 years. And he credits the Minneapolis Police Department’s juvenile unit and the city’s youth violence prevention efforts with helping bring those numbers down.
But the pandemic is making it hard for the city to carry out some of its youth violence prevention work.
Sasha Cotton, director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, said young people at risk to either become victims or perpetrators of violence have had hard time accessing the city’s programs.
“We are particularly concerned with their inability to access the resources that they need at school, at parks, at community centers,” said Cotton.
It’s not clear right now if there’s a direct causal relationship between the pandemic and the increase in youth violence, said Cotton.
“But what we know is that young people need positive, pro-social activity. And they need connections to caring adults,” she said. “And the environment that we find ourselves in 2020, has made that hard.”
Tre Morgan said young people old enough to know better who commit crimes should be held accountable. But he said too many of them don't have the community or family support they need to make the right choices.
"For me, I thought I was an adult at the age 13 or 14,” said Morgan. “And now I see that was completely wrong."