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Indiana juvenile justice bill first in nation

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In what started at a summit hosted by the Indiana State Bar Association in August, House Enrolled Act 1193, which authorizes a work study commission to consider various juvenile justice issues in Indiana, was signed by the governor March 17.

The commission will be made up of representatives of various people who oversee the juvenile justice system, as well as stakeholders who regularly work with children in and out of the classroom. Starting in July, the yet-to-be appointed commission members will begin meeting on a monthly basis to discuss best practices for handling juvenile justice matters, including what is happening in Indiana and in other states.

Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, who authored the bill, said she was pleased even though original language about mandatory training for police officers who deal with juveniles on a regular basis was deleted before it passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee stated fiscal reasons for cutting the training portion from the bill.

Lawson, herself a retired police officer, said training could still be implemented at a later date, or the commission could recommend training based on their findings.

She added that according to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, released March 17, Indiana had the highest percentage increase of people in prison from 2008 to 2009. She said the study by a non-partisan group affirmed what the bill was all about, which is the need for the various stakeholders in Indiana's justice system to think about what these statistics mean. That includes how those statistics relate to the juvenile justice system's statistics, which the Pew Center included in its research.

"Without being nudged or told, we already knew we needed to do something about kids being detained and arrested for unnecessary reasons," Lawson said. "I look forward to seeing the work group get started, and I'm anxious to see the end result."

JauNae Hanger, a civil rights attorney in Indianapolis who helped organize the summit, and Judge Steven Teske, a juvenile judge in Clayton County, Ga., who spoke at the ISBA's conference and testified before the Senate and House judiciary committees in support of the bill, agreed.

"Just because training was cut out for economic reasons, remember this is a commission to study and make recommendations," Judge Teske said. "As revenues come back and increase, the group can make the recommendation to have training."

Hanger added that the commission will also be inclusive to "a broad, diverse group of stakeholders" including mental health professionals, social workers, educators, police officers, judges, and attorneys who will all be able to voice their opinions.

"Given the fact the issue of zero tolerance has hit the national scene in the news and has been getting a lot of attention, and with this type of statewide legislation studying zero tolerance in order to make statewide changes, it is my opinion that Indiana will become a trendsetter," he said.

He added it has already happened in Georgia.

On March 18, the Georgia State Senate unanimously passed a bill regarding zero tolerance. Sen. Emanuel Jones, who authored that legislation, is a Democrat in a state where both houses have Republican majorities.

However, Judge Teske said Republican senators were among those who asked if that bill went far enough when discussing it before the Senate Education and Youth Committee.

As a result of those questions, Judge Teske told the committee he and Jones would work together over the summer on more comprehensive legislation to draw up and submit for the 2011 session.

"These senators are familiar with what Indiana is doing and that was the impetus to start looking at this one piece of legislation to say, 'Is this enough? Should we not be doing more, like Indiana?'" he said.

Russell Skiba, who testified on behalf of the bill as a national expert on zero tolerance policies and professor in counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University - Bloomington, also praised the bill.

"Schools and school districts and states around the country are looking for guidance on how to get a handle on some of these issues," he said. "This bill puts Indiana at the forefront of defining these issues."

Matthew C. Aalsma, professor of pediatrics and psychology at Indiana University School of Medicine, who testified on behalf of the bill, said via e-mail, "The goal of these efforts, from my perspective, is to divert more low-risk/mentally ill youth away from the juvenile justice and detention setting to allow for treatment and other protective factors to develop. Diversion is more possible when school police officials receive training in de-escalation of youth with mental illness/special education needs."

Dr. Margaret J. Blythe, who works with Aalsma at the medical school and at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center, added via e-mail that she was pleased the bill promoted the commission, but added she was "disappointed" the bill didn't include training requirements. However, because "virtually all law enforcement agencies had representatives that testified in favor of the bill" she said this was a sign of "a community awareness and need to address these issues."

Judge Teske said he was impressed with the involvement of the ISBA on the conference and resulting legislation.

"I don't know that I know of too many state bars that have gotten this active in addressing something as significant and comprehensive as this," he said.

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