MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Leaders in Hennepin County are trying to keep teenagers out of jail.

Their plan involves a two-part juvenile justice program aimed to help young people stay on the right track.

This is about juveniles who are low-level offenders. The goal is to try to keep young people out of the criminal justice system because behavioral health experts say they do better in life when they are not stigmatized by a record or charge,.

County Attorney Mike Freeman spoke in front of the Juvenile Court and Detention Center with a mission to divert some teenagers from the criminal justice system.

“The best thing we could do for the youth of Hennepin County is to keep them out of these two buildings,” Freeman said.

The attorney’s office is working on two initiatives. First, Freeman encouraged schools to handle discipline problems.

juvenile detention center Hennepin Co. Leaders Working To Keep Juveniles Out Of Jail

(credit: CBS)

“If students were caught smoking, doing minor damages to furniture or getting into shoving matches in the hallway, previously the schools were sending those kids to our office,” he said.

There were 728 cases referred to the county last year, down from more than 2,500 10 years ago.

The second initiative is juvenile diversion. Corey Harland of Headway Youth Diversion Outreach said diversion program gives offenders options to make restitution rather than face charges or a criminal record. That could involve community service, classes or therapy.

“The diversion program isn’t a simple get-out-of-jail-free card,” Harland said. “It’s an opportunity where we provide consequences to youth but also an opportunity for resources in families and youth that will last longer than the diversion program.”

Previously, juveniles who were part of a diversion program had to go to a Headway Emotional Services office. Now, case workers will go to them. They think this will help make sure transportation, finances or family circumstances do not get in the way of juveniles following through.

“Many juveniles do dumb things, it’s the nature of being a teenager,” Freeman said. “But committing a low-level crime shouldn’t follow you the rest of your life.”

Last year there were more than 6,000 cases that were referred to the Hennepin county attorney’s office juvenile prosecution division. Thirty-four percent of them were diverted out of the criminal justice system.

Freeman said that most of the time, those diverted offenders do not commit a crime again.