Friday, March 06, 2009

St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford’s fight to stop the disproportionate detention of minority youth

St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford meeting with representatives of organizations working on issue of detention of children of color.

By Barb Olsen
Back in 2006, Melanie Ford decided to take on what many said would be an impossible task: running for and winning the office of St. Louis County Attorney. One of the reasons she took on that election, Ford says, was because it would give her the opportunity to do something positive for St. Louis County’s youth.
“One of the statistics that troubled me most,” Ford explains, “was the disproportionate number of persons of color in St. Louis County who were incarcerated. Citizens agreed we should find programs to reduce recidivism and crime prevention in youth.

“One of the statistics that troubled me most was the disproportionate number of persons of color in St. Louis County who were incarcerated.”

St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford

Now entering her third year in office as St. Louis County Attorney, Melanie Ford continues to make reversing the trend of disproportionate confinement a top priority.
Last October, Ford convened a meeting of people involved with St. Louis County’s youth to talk about how the juvenile justice system operates and how it could be improved. Joining them were officials from the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), and representatives of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. JDAI is one of the nation’s most effective and widespread initiatives for reform in the juvenile justice system, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation funds programs across the country to help meet the needs of vulnerable children and families.
Since that session, a large group of organizations and individuals has joined in this effort to improve the county’s juvenile justice system, including Arrowhead Regional Corrections, St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, Bois Forte and Fond du Lac tribal representatives, elected officials, judges, school representatives, and agencies that serve youth. And St. Louis County has been selected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Minnesota JDAI to receive technical assistance and, potentially, funding for the project.
“This initiative will help us create a juvenile justice system that will be the best we can offer our children and our communities,” Ford said. “Our goal will be to keep those youth who are involved in the justice system in their own community and out of detention. It’s very expensive to incarcerate people, and studies show that troubled youth who are confined only have greater problems in the future.”
Ford says participants in the project will analyze the county’s existing programs, see what’s working well, and create successful reform strategies for approaches that aren’t working.
“While we recognize the need for detaining some juveniles, we want to eliminate the inappropriate or unnecessary use of secure detention,” Ford commented.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has invited Ford to be part of a panel discussion this summer in Washington D.C. on how juvenile justice professionals across the country can help reverse the unequal incarceration of minority youth.
Ford encourages anyone with concerns about this issue to contact her at 726-2323.