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New plan to put bullies behind bars

Prosecutor James Backstrom slides an edge of steel into his voice and lays out one of the toughest juvenile-justice policies in the nation: School bullies will go to jail.

Beat up another kid, intimidate, harass, pick a fight on the playground or the bus, "and you will be looking at a minimum of one night in detention," he says. "Too many kids in this country do not go to school every day because they're scared of bullies. That is unacceptable."

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Bullies might find themselves sentenced to community service as well, forced to clean up a park or scrub the windows of their school. They might have to pen an apology to their victims. They might be required to attend counseling.

But Mr. Backstrom wants those who are at least 13 years old to hear a cell door click behind them. To spend at least part of a weekend locked up, alone and - he hopes - remorseful.

The jail-for-bullies policy has been in effect since last spring here in Dakota County. In theory, all six juvenile court judges are on board. But implementation has been spotty because individual judges define bullying for themselves.

Some judges have been quick to put any kid who lashes out in jail. Others find reasons to excuse schoolyard fights - the kid was provoked, he's under stress - and hand down more traditional sentences of community service or counseling. Prosecutors estimate that about a dozen bullies have done time behind bars so far.

But not everyone is convinced this is the best method. "It seems there are deeper issues that many bullies have, and I'm not sure a night in jail is going to change them," says a Dakota County Public Health Department supervisor.