New group aims to prevent many from enetering juvenile justice system

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Ten to 15 years ago, a school yard fight usually led to after-school detention or a couple of Saturdays spent in the classroom. But as zero tolerance policies have grown and as children are treated more and more as adults, the reaction to normal young peoples’ behavior has become harsher and, in many instances, is paving the way to prison.

 A number of federal and state agencies along with nonprofit organizations are working to help regain the youths’ footing after they stumble into trouble. Now, a new nonprofit has been formed with a focus on preventing children and teenagers from entering the juvenile justice system.

nonprofit03-15col.jpg Attorneys Deborah Agard, left, and JauNae Hanger serve as vice chair and chair of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative board of directors.(IL Photo/ Dave Stafford)

The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative is bringing together lawyers, social workers and child advocates from around the state to work on changing the policies and laws that some feel are too punitive and criminalizing children. Leaders of the new group want to put a variety of stakeholders at the same table to do the research and determine the best practices and then push schools and the Indiana Legislature toward reform.

 JauNae Hanger, civil rights attorney in Indianapolis, is one of the founders of CPLI and is currently serving as chair of the board of directors. She explained the organization does not want to prevent all kids from going into the juvenile justice system because some deserve to be there. However, CPLI believes too many young people are entering the system and more are at risk of entering.

 “We’re not trying to change the world,” she said. “We’re realistic, but over time, you can make a big impact.”

 Members of CPLI worked for the better part of a year to get their new nonprofit in place and ready to introduce itself. The organization held a reception in mid-December which attracted an estimated 70 individuals, and Hanger has plans to contact and meet other groups to forge alliances and work on common goals.

 In addition, CPLI is also looking for funding sources to make itself sustainable and, eventually, to be able to hire administrative staff.

A pipeline to jail

One main entrance to the juvenile justice system is school. Suspensions and expulsions have replaced detention, and offenses on school grounds are often leading to arrests of children and incarceration. Minority and special needs students are impacted disproportionally by school discipline policies in Indiana and throughout the country.

 As an example of the punishment overreaching the infraction, Carole Craig, Greater Indianapolis NAACP education co-chair and CPLI board member, pointed to a recent incident involving four minority youths.

 During the summer, an Indianapolis high school was undergoing some renovation and the four teenagers wandered inside through an unlocked door and played basketball in the gym. School officials subsequently charged the four with trespassing and suspended one for the entire fall semester and the other three for nine weeks. Craig and her colleagues at the NAACP intervened and were able to get all the youngsters reinstated.

The belief that such harsh treatment creates a better climate in the schools is, in fact, a myth, Craig said. Having more than 30 years of tenure as a middle school science teacher and school principal, she maintains children, regardless of their ethnicity, socioeconomic standing and even their home life, are all capable of learning and meeting high expectations.

 Instead, schools are relying on suspensions and expulsions for mostly minor offenses which puts students either home alone or wandering the streets and disengages them from education. Multiple suspensions have been shown to increase the likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system, creating the school-to-prison pipeline.

 “We have lost our perspective on this issue,” Hanger said. “We wouldn’t go around arresting adults for innocent acts. Why are we arresting our children?”

 The issue of the school-to-prison pipeline stepped into the national spotlight in December when the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held the first-ever congressional hearing on the topic. No one from CPLI testified, but the organization is focusing on the pipeline problem because this is how many juveniles are entering the jails.

CPLI members emphasize many agencies, including the Indiana Department of Correction, and other nonprofits are working with teens and building programs to help the youngsters in the justice system get on the right path to being a productive adult. Yet, CPLI sees a gap in the effort in that no single statewide organization is focused on changing policy.

 “We’re not sitting here saying the system is broken,” said Indianapolis attorney and vice chair of the CPLI board Deborah Agard. “There are a lot of positive changes, but the momentum needs to pick up and make things happen sooner.”

 Policy changes difficult

The CPLI wants to be an independent voice that takes a step back to look at the entire picture then builds consensus and makes recommendations to the General Assembly for changes in laws and polices.

 “When we talk about reforming the juvenile justice system, we’ve got to be realistic,” Hanger said. “It’s going to take awhile. We can’t force reform on people. We’ve got to bring people along.”

 While innovative programs are being implemented in certain parts of the state, there are few comprehensive statewide policies and efforts to prevent the criminalization of children. This, in turn, creates a system of justice by geographical jurisdiction which can become at risk if the people committed to such changes are replaced or retire.

 A key to making statewide change is follow-through. CPLI emphasizes it must evaluate any laws passed to ensure they are yielding the intended results. And, as the history of House Enrolled Act 1193 illustrates, evaluation must be done to ensure the new laws are being implemented and keep all interested parties aware of any progress or setbacks.

This particular bill created a work group charged with making recommendations concerning law enforcement, school policing and youth.

 The Indiana State Bar Association had been heavily involved in HEA 1193 and many were elated when it passed and was signed into law. However, the group never met and, Hanger said, the law was repealed during the 2012 session.

 As required by the law, the Indiana Supreme Court made its appointments to the work group as did the Indiana attorney general and the Legislature, but the governor did not. Gov. Mitch Daniels never appointed the chair and so, the group never convened and no recommendations came forth.

 “Is the lesson we can’t do it in this state?” Hanger asked. “No, but I think the lesson is we have to be a little bit more organized.”•


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  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.