Teaming up for change

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Juvenile Justice

A unique conference addressing improvements to juvenile justice systems in various communities nationwide drew experts to Indianapolis recently to share information.

The daylong “Summit on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System: A Statewide Dialogue,” organized by the Indiana State Bar Association, Indiana Supreme Court Administration, and the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, took place Aug. 27. The conference was a followup to a study by the Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services, which was established by the Indiana General Assembly in 2007.

That study showed that in Indiana there is evidence of disproportionate minority confinement, or DMC, but the conference wasn’t just about the numbers - it was also about improving the circumstances behind the statistics. One of the conference’s main goals was to bring all stakeholders to the table to listen to what has worked for other communities and to discuss the issues that might discourage DMC when arresting, charging, and sentencing youth.

Local and national lawyers

The event did just that; politicians, lawyers, judges, social workers, educators, law enforcement officers, and even parents were in the audience to hear experts in the field share stories and suggestions about how similar programs can be implemented in Indiana.

In his opening remarks, ISBA president R. William Jonas Jr. said the state bar was proud to move forward on the issue as he emphasized the focus should be on each individual child in the system and what is best for them.

“This is a little bit of a touchy subject,” he said to a room full of nodding heads and muffled agreement. “It can be difficult to talk about. The speakers may challenge your ideas. From the ISBA’s perspective, we want those challenges. We want concrete steps to bring us to solutions.”

The working chairs were Marion Superior Judge Tanya Walton Pratt and Lake Circuit Judge Lorenzo Arredondo. The honorary chairs were Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis.

Chief Justice Shepard thanked those who were participating because, he said, he knew they were there and doing the work they do not because they had to, but because they wanted to help those in the juvenile justice system.

Clayton“People show up again and show up again because it matters to them,” he said.

He added while the state has never been color blind, that hasn’t prevented Hoosiers from making progressive changes.

Speaker Michael Patchner, dean of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Social Work, thanked the legislature for enacting laws that were a direct result of the commission’s recommendations. He said when he first started working with the commission, he noticed the automatic doors were there for people with disabilities, yet they were also helpful to everyone, including him. That experience, he said, made him realize that regulations that were meant to help one part of the community were also beneficial to the rest of the community, much like the programs discussed during the summit.

Role models

Among the speakers who highlighted successful programs were a judge in Georgia; an advocate who worked with police for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority in Boston; the Madison, Wis., chief of police; a district attorney for the juvenile unit in Portland, Ore.; a prominent civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C.; the founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Illinois; and the founder of a national organization based in San Francisco.

Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., said he had met with several juvenile court judges in Indiana to look over the code and see what could be changed.

For the program in his county, Judge Teske said it was a matter of determining which types of offenses were being punished and how that was taking away from the officers’ real reason for being in the school: as a deterrent to unsafe behavior and drugs. Looking at the numbers, 90 percent of arrests were misdemeanors. Of those, most were for disrupting school, fights, and disorderly conduct. He said these were the kinds of things most high school students would do, only it would be more appropriate for them to be sent to the principal’s office and not to a police officer.

ShepardAfter working with teachers and officers to overhaul the system, Judge Teske’s caseload dropped from 165 to 30. Those 30, he said, are the ones who truly needed to be in the system.

School resource officers could then spend more time at schools where they could oversee those who needed to be supervised. Recidivism was reduced, and the community became a safer place as more crimes outside of the schools were being solved with help from students.

In one case, a school resource officer’s conversation with a student using profanity led to a drug dealer’s arrest, explained Sgt. Mark Richards, who oversees the school resource officers in Clayton County. Other crimes such as homicides and armed robberies have been solved with the help of students.

There were many challenges in the collaborative process, he said, suggesting those who want to consider their own systems start by talking to stakeholders individually and to have a neutral mediator facilitate conversations.

Lisa Thurau of Strategies for Youth in Cambridge, Mass., had a similar experience. When she learned many minority students were being arrested on Boston’s public transit, she discovered all the students were being arrested at the same stop by the same handful of officers when school was released. After a struggle with the transit authority, including press involvement, she eventually got them to the table.

ArredondoSince 2004, the StopWatch Program she helped create has dramatically decreased arrests of students.

She has also worked to educate youths and their parents about how to interact with police, has worked with police departments in Cambridge and Everett, Mass., and is currently training police in Nantucket on how to interact with youth.

Optimistic for change

While it’s a daunting task to make the kinds of sweeping changes participants learned about through other national examples, this summit was meant to show the stakeholders in Indiana that it’s not impossible if others could do it, like lunch keynote speaker James Bell, founder of the W. Haywood Burns Institute in San Francisco, which considers DMC issues.

“You must know and believe in the depths of your soul that this is a solvable problem,” he said.

To do this, he suggested participants focus on specific goals by eliminating abstractions, reach a consensus regarding the purpose of detention, and build a collaborative model for all involved.

ThurauTo do that in Indiana, at the end of the summit an 18-member panel discussed what comes next to make sure these issues are addressed and remain a priority.

A summit report will be released in December, and after that a working group will continue for six to nine months, a way that planning committee member Dr. Daniel Lowry said will ensure “this isn’t the end of the story, but the beginning.”

For more information about the summit, including the Indiana Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services 2008 Final Report, visit the ISBA’s Web site,


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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.