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Juvenile justice: Initiative encourages courts to find detention alternatives

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A little more than two years ago, Donavan M. got himself into a little trouble.

“I was running around with the wrong crowd and got caught up in a mess," he said. "The judge thought it would be best for me to be in this juvenile probation program so I don’t end up in prison like my dad. It’s helped me get over my anger a lot and my drug addiction. It’s taught me a lot of respect for my mother.”

Donavan, who will be off probation April 2, was considered a low-risk offender and, therefore, was diverted to less punitive programs because of Madison County’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

JDAI is a bipartisan effort committed to guiding courts and probation departments toward retaining the right youth for the right reasons and the right amount of time, said Madison County Circuit Court Judge George Pancol, who oversees juvenile court. In short, the initiative focuses on reallocation of public resources from mass incarceration toward a reinvestment in youth and families.

“The criminal justice system is in definite need of a makeover, and the juvenile justice system is part of that,” he said. “What we’ve done for the past 50 years hasn’t done what we need done.”

Since 2014, Madison County has joined with the State of Indiana and the Annie E. Casey Foundation as one of the first 11 counties in the state to pilot JDAI. As of 2017, the initiative operates in 40 states and the District of Columbia, serving about one-third of court-involved youth in the nation.

JDAI is a collaboration between the courts, from the trial courts to the Indiana Supreme Court, the Indiana Department of Child Services and the Indiana Department of Correction.

“It’s bringing everybody to the table through data rather than feeling,” said Madison County JDAI co-coordinator Traci Lane.

JDAI moves low-risk youth, such as Donavan, from secured detention into community-based alternative programs.

“They were finding their juvenile center was overcrowded. Their kids got hurt,” Lane said.

AN INITIATIVE, NOT A PROGRAM

Madison County organizers are careful to stress that JDAI is an initiative intended to lead to long-term systemic change, rather than a program, which may be more limited in scope and duration.

“Programming isn’t all of the answer," Pancol said. "You have to change systems.”

“The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure facilities,” a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute, shows long-term incarceration in secured facilities is not the best way to ensure lasting change among young people in an effort to enhance public safety. Though this report was published in 2006, it remains the go-to source of information for professionals working in juvenile corrections.

According to the report, detention and incarceration affects not only the juvenile offender but also his or her family and community.

“A recent literature review of youth corrections shows that detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education, and their employment,” the report said.

“It actually increases the likelihood youth will get involved in the adult correctional system,” Lane added.

Through JDAI, the Madison County juvenile court and probation department did a self-assessment and identified its shortcomings in an effort to curb detentions, Lane said. The current effort involves mapping the geography throughout the county from which the youth are being referred.

Because of that, she said, the probation office now has a screening tool to determine which young offenders are best suited for alternatives to detention. It considers a variety of factors, such as the juvenile’s age, the seriousness of the offense, whether the youth already is on probation and whether the child is enrolled in school or has been suspended or expelled.

“With this tool, it’s more objective,” she said. “Based on the objective things, it takes out the emotion.”

In addition, juvenile probation officers have a greater number of corrective options at their disposal, including day and evening reporting, home detention and release with special conditions, Lane said. The young offenders are matched to the least restrictive detention alternative, she added.

A COMMUNITY-WIDE PROBLEM

Many of these options would not be possible without the help of parents and community, Lane stressed. To that end, the department conducts a number of programs, such as “Policing the Teen Brain” and “Teaching the Teen Brain,” that help responsible adults gain a better understanding and learn how to assist.

“Teenagers aren’t adults," she said. "Just because their outside looks that way doesn’t mean they will make the same decisions.”

The goal, Lane said, is to keep young people out of the court system.

“Once you’re involved in the court system, it’s very hard to get out,” she said.

Each of these strategies helps ensure the young offenders make their court appearances and prevents additional arrests, she said.

“It gives us that extra layer of restriction for that youth that’s less restrictive than detention,” she said. “They have the opportunity to do these things rather than being in detention where they’d get behind in school, lose their jobs and not have access to positive things.”

Madison County already is seeing some improvements, including a reduction in the number of felony juvenile petitions and decreased recidivism, Lane said.

Much of the ability to reform juvenile justice boils down to money. Through JDAI, Madison County has received more than $104,000 since 2014 and received about $36,000 in bonus grants in February for the success of its program.

“Instead of putting money into those (DOC) facilities, they are putting money into counties to decrease their numbers,” said Madison County JDAI co-coordinator Nichelle Serf.

The goal, however, is to make the programs self-sustaining, she said.

“The state wants our programs to be sustainable,” she said.

Though they aren’t aware of JDAI specifically, parents Bobbie Mullins and Rebecca Hoesli said they have seen a difference in their sons since they were sentenced to the probation department’s evening reporting program.

“He’s actually interested in karate. We actually purchased him an electric guitar for Christmas because he’s been doing the music classes,” Mullins said. “As far as evening reporting goes, they have done their part with him and even gone above and beyond.”

Hoesli said she likes that her son has a safe place as an outlet for his emotions and that by being with other young people in the same boat, he sees he’s not alone in his struggles.

“He seems a lot happier,” she said. “He thinks more about what he’s doing.”

Posted in JPI in the News

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