Everyone agrees, juvenile offenders and guns are a bad combination. For the past several years, Hennepin County Probation has been working hard to reduce the number of repeat juvenile gun offenders. One successful approach is Hennepin County’s Juvenile Gun Offender Program.
The program educates young offenders about the effects of gun violence, on both the victim and the perpetrator. The program was developed for first time, low level gun offenders, in an effort to deter these kids from making similar, more costly mistakes in the future. Low level gun offenses include violations like brandishing BB guns or replica handguns, or simply possessing a real firearm. Youths participating in the program range in age from as young as 11 years old up to 18 years of age.
The program itself consists of 40 hours of education and 60 hours of community service. The education portion of the program is a 10-week course that exposes offenders to the consequences of gun violence. The course begins with a visit to Hennepin County Medical Center’s Emergency Room. Here, the kids meet with nursing staff who show them what happens when a patient with a gun shot wound comes in. From the initial assessment of the injury, with explicit descriptions of the types of trauma inflicted by gun shots, through emergency treatment and stabilization of the patient, participants experience the devastation that can be caused by a gun shot wound. But that’s just the beginning.
In the weeks that follow, participants in the program meet with a variety of law enforcement and criminal justice officials. Federal law enforcement officers meet with the youth and explain the Federal laws pertaining to gun violence and the consequences of being prosecuted in the Federal courts. Private investigators explain mandatory minimum sentencing and what it means for them if they’re convicted of a violent crime. Public defenders and judges from the Hennepin County Bench then meet with the kids and describe how they can be certified to stand trial as an adult in some cases, and what they can expect in court if they’re charged with a violent gun crime.
The final weeks of the program bring home the impact of gun violence in a more personal way. Participants experience victim/offender mediation sessions and are introduced to the Restorative Justice Project where they learn more about the effects of gun violence on the victims and the community at large. Participants then meet with gun offenders serving prison terms for their crimes. Prisoners lay out in stark terms what life in prison is really like, and how their crimes have led them to incarceration.
Finally, they meet with parents of both murderers, and murder victims. In these meetings, the grief and pain caused by gun violence is brought home. Young offenders learn not just about the suffering of the victim’s families, but also come to realize the devastation that would be felt by their own parents if they were ever to be convicted of such a serious crime.
Since the program was redesigned in 2007, more juveniles are completing the program and fewer are being charged with new gun-related offenses. From January 2008 through February 2009, (the most recent reporting period available) 69 percent of juveniles who were enrolled in the program successfully completed it. One group posted a completion rate of 78 percent. This compares to completion rates that historically have hovered around 50 percent. Out of the 66 juveniles who completed the program during this time, only one youth had a new conviction for a gun offense; five youths were charged with new petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor offenses; none of the participants were charged with new felony offenses.