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Piecing it together with words

Juvenile offenders going through Douglas County District Court are swirling in the consequences of making poor decisions – they broke the law, they’ve let people down, they’re going to do community service work, they’re going to write a letter of apology to victims and then there are consequences at home.

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In the midst of it all, juveniles are also ordered by the court to write a 500-word essay.

But two people who see these young people daily have ratcheted up the essay requirement. They’ve added incentive for juveniles to look inward and turn in a well-thought-out essay.

Douglas County District Court Judge Ann Carrott and Probation Agent Tom Altendahl have teamed up over the last two years to offer gift cards for the top-rated essays submitted to the court.

Carrott said, “Most of the years I’ve been involved in the juvenile system there’s been this thought that if juveniles wrote essays about their conduct, something like driving without a license, it made them work through and think through how they got to that point and how they would do it differently.

“It’s not about grammar, we’re not looking for punctuation, we’re looking for content. Some of the essays are really rough, but the content is really good,” the judge said.

Every juvenile offender is ordered to write an essay, but whether they participate in the incentive program is their choice, and about 90 percent of them do.

The essays are read by county courthouse staff members, who select the top essays.

Those essays are displayed near the courtrooms at Douglas County Courthouse in Alexandria and the juvenile author gets a gift card provided by Carrott – usually $10 to a store or restaurant.

“[The essay project] isn’t costing taxpayer money and it’s not an overly complicated process, but it’s sort of taken off in its quiet little way. It’s not expensive, it’s not time consuming but it means a lot to the kids,” Carrott said. “There’s some pride involved in this.”

She said she’s not aware of other courts doing this program.

“These are kids who are in the system for an obvious reason, but there’s some positive in this and the public needs to know those sorts of things are going on,” she added.

“It’s really neat to see,” Altendahl said. “A number of kids have come in for office visits and the pride they have seeing their essay in that glass box… this is catching on.”

The common theme that resonates through most of the essays has been centered on trust, Altendahl said.

“Losing the trust of people that matter to them is a big thing,” he said. “They’re realizing it’s hard to earn back that trust… with parents, teachers, community members, coaches, parents of close friends or girlfriends or boyfriends.

“Suddenly, everyone is looking at them differently. It’s hard to get that trust back,” he explained.

Overall, Carrott and Altendahl said the goal of the essay project is not to have these kids in the system again.

The following is an excerpt from one of the recent essays written by a

juvenile and displayed at Douglas County Courthouse:


“Ever heard the saying that once you lose someone’s trust it’s hard to get back? Well this is very true and I’ve learned this the hard way. There are many ways you can lose someone’s trust. In my case I lost my dad’s trust, my uncle’s trust, and the state of Minnesota’s trust all from one simple action. From this one simple act it’s taking me a long time to get back all the trust I lost from not just these people but many others who also lost trust in me and even look at me different now.

In conclusion even after almost a year’s time I still haven’t gotten all my trust back completely from my dad, my uncle, or the state of Minnesota. The moral of the story in this life lesson is that trust is probably the hardest thing to ever get back from people.”

Amy Chaffins

Amy Chaffins is a journalist working for the Echo Press newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota.

(320) 763-3133