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Decisions on juvenile detention in era of school threats guided by law, principles

This piece originally appeared on the Times of Northwest Indiana

CROWN POINT — Students, educators and law enforcement know the drill when it comes to violence or threats of violence against schools.

Schools go on lockdown or lockout, children call or text their parents, classes are disrupted, police and fire crews respond, and parents rush to check on the safety of their children.

In many cases, police swiftly take a student at the school into custody on allegations of making the threat. Officials issue a statement about whether the threat was credible.

The fear parents feel and the social cost are real.

But how should the juvenile justice system deal with students who make such threats?

On a case-by-case basis, said Lake Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak and Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter.

The question of whether teens should be detained on allegations of threatening schools was in the spotlight last month, after Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott posted an open letter to Carter on social media criticizing the court's decision to release a 17-year-old girl charged with making an online threat to shoot up Hammond High School on Sept. 11.

“How can you let someone go who makes a domestic terrorism threat in 24 hours?” McDermott wrote. 

The mayor urged Carter to request the girl be waived to adult court.

Carter initially said a motion for the teen to be tried as an adult had been filed, but he said Friday his office has decided not to seek such a waiver.

"Based on what we now know and what we've reviewed, we're not going to proceed with the waiver," Carter said.

The decision was made based on information gathered since the girl's arrest about her and the potential threat, he said. 

"The question is, 'Can the Juvenile Court adequately handle her situation?' ... I think the answer is yes," he said.

Tool guides detention decisions

The Juvenile Court sees a range of cases — not just violence or threats of violence against schools — where emotions run high, Stefaniak said.

"What ends up happening is the child's behavior comes out, and sometimes it's shocking and appalling, and the general feeling from people would be that maybe you detain that kid, lock them up, to teach them a lesson," he said. "But the presumption of innocence remains because they haven't been convicted of anything."

Judicial officers' decisions on whether to detain children are guided by state statute and the principles of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, Stefaniak said. 

Studies show children often act on impulse because their brains are not yet fully developed. Holding them in a juvenile detention facility "has a profoundly negative impact" on their "mental and physical well-being, their education and their employment," according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute.

Research suggests teens held in detention are more likely to continue to engage in delinquent behavior and that being incarcerated can increase the likelihood that they will commit another crime, the report says.

To combat this problem, Lake County joined the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in 2009. The number of children held in the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center has fallen by 70% since 2010.

Judicial officers use a point-based risk-assessment tool to determine if a child is at risk of harming him- or herself or the community or a risk of not returning to court.

The reassessment process will end when officials think they've received enough input from stakeholders, Stefaniak said.

The goal is to use the risk assessment tool to guide a majority of decisions, eliminating the need to rely on subjectivity and avoiding unfairness or the appearance of unfairness, he said.

Judicial officers have three options: detain, release with conditions or release without conditions.

An initial decision on detention is made immediately after a child is brought to the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center. The child is then entitled to a hearing within 48 hours, Stefaniak said.

"By that time, two days have generally passed and intensive probation has had an opportunity to gather more information that may not have been available at the time of arrest," he said. 

At the 48-hour hearing, a judicial officer makes another determination about the need for detention. Children released with conditions may be required to wear an ankle monitor or be placed on house arrest.

This piece originally appeared on the Times of Northwest Indiana



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