ILNews

Teens share stories about juvenile justice experience

Back to TopE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Juvenile Justice

Chances are the two teenagers are strangers and haven’t met even though they share a common bond through Indiana’s juvenile justice system.

Robert Neely, 16, and Trevor Bridger, 17, both live in Elkhart County and have their own tales of how it took incarceration to teach them a lesson. Both have been locked up in juvenile detention centers and spent time at the same Department of Correction facility in South Bend, ordered by the same juvenile Magistrate Deborah Domine. They’ve been out since January and are now hoping to complete their probations this year so they can leave the juvenile justice system behind.

Elkhart County

This is the story of two young men who’ve gone through a local system the same as thousands of juveniles; they are just two of the 82 youth sent to state-run juvenile facilities from Elkhart County, last year’s figures show. Both say detention taught them a lesson they might not have learned any other way. While both speak positively of the actions their juvenile magistrate took in helping them reform their lives, their intersecting storyline splits when it comes to their experiences with counsel as they maneuvered through the county’s court system.

Their stories come at a time when Indiana ranks fourth in the nation for the number of youth being locked up, the state’s juvenile justice system is lagging in what many call meaningful statewide reforms, and children’s access to quality representation varies significantly from county to county and sometimes within the same juvenile court system.

Starting over

TrevorNeely grew up on the east side of Chicago. His dad is deceased and his mom still lives in Chicago. But Neely came to northern Indiana about three years ago to start over and live with his older sister, who’s now 26 and has held guardianship for him for about seven years. Aside from Robert, she also takes care of their younger 14-year-old sister, two 10-year-old siblings, and her son and baby.

Neely has a history in both Indiana and Illinois’ social services systems and first made court appearances in Chicago when he was 9 or 10. But his first Indiana court appearance came a few years ago before Magistrate Domine on a stolen property charge.

Neely has been locked up in county juvenile detention about 10 times, ranging from about two weeks to four months, for various things including possession of stolen property and probation violations that came from drug use and running from foster homes. He has also been placed in group and foster homes after his sister declared he wasn’t listening or following rules, and that he was at times too defiant for her to handle.

“I’ve never been out for a whole five months since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve spent half my life being locked up.”

Magistrate Domine gave him a few chances, but his defiant attitude combined with drinking and marijuana use put a damper on his progress and led to a seven-month stint at the South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility last year. Neely would have been one of the 126 juveniles the state reported being in the facility at the end of December. He was there from June 2007 to January 2008.

But since his release, Neely’s court-ordered family therapist Stephanie McIntosh with the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force sees the teenager as a success story. She works with the Family Support Services that provides an intensive homebased intervention designed as an alternative to out-of-home placement, offering treatment for youth and their families in the least restrictive environment within the community. McIntosh met with him periodically when he was locked up last year and then has been meeting weekly, sometimes going out to eat.

“Even thought it’s tough, rough, and it’s hard, there’s a lot of progress going on here,” she said.

His last court appearance was in early February after his DOC release a couple weeks earlier. He’s looking forward to his next hearing June 4 because he hopes to be released from probation; Neely hopes the court sees how he’s been clean for a year, is doing well in school, and is working to change his ways.

Eventually, he’d like to enroll in a technical school to do some welding work or some skill such as advertising or design, Neely said.

“I’ve been through it all, so now I’m trying not to go back to it because I’ve come from it,” he said. “I came up here to start over, but didn’t. Now I’m starting from scratch and doing it myself. I’m seeing where life takes me.”

Getting 'it'

A couple miles away from the pizzeria where Neely shares his story, Bridger sits at the kitchen table with his mom and court-ordered family caseworker to talk about his experiences in the system.

The teenager first entered the system a couple years ago – a sex-related charge was dismissed and he was charged on a residential entry offense. A February 2006 arrest for shoplifting led to a felony theft charge, and he was put on probation for a year. But Bridger said he kept hanging out with the wrong crowd, smoking marijuana, and failing drug tests last year.

His first probation violation was a result of school tardiness, Bridger said. Part of his probation also involved not regularly attending school and being late; he’d have to spend a day in juvenile detention if he was late to class. He racked up about eight tardy violations so he spent a cumulative five days in detention, he said.

After his release, he returned a month later for violation of house arrest. Two days after that release, Bridger said he was arrested after failing a drug test and that put him back in detention for a month before being sent to the DOC. Diversion program options didn’t work out, and he was sent to a South Bend juvenile facility from June 12, 2007, to Jan. 14, 2008.

“I just didn’t take it seriously. It was all a joke,” he said. “All my friends had been locked up, and I said I’d never be locked up. Next thing you know, I’m sitting in JC three times and then to the DOC.”

Bridger was supposed to be released in September and was counting down the days. However 15 days before his expected release he stole some food because he was hungry; that violated a DOC rule and cost him three additional months of detention.

“I stole a cookie. One cookie. A moment of sugary pleasure ... cost me three more months,” he said.

His new December release date also was postponed a month, but Bridger said the additional time taught him the most.

“That helped me more understand the consequences and what can happen. It taught me patience and helped me become more mature,” he said.

Bridger earned an honors GED in the state facility, and he’s now taking part-time college courses at Ivy Tech Community College and plans to enroll full time in the fall. He hopes that he’ll be released from probation by the end of this month.

“It happened for a reason and I finally got ‘it,’” he said, noting that DOC taught him a lesson. “You have to really want it, and you have to get ‘it.’ People who don’t, they need to go (to DOC) and experience it.”

Legal experiences

The pair’s experiences with legal counsel varied, though.

Neely said he sees his courtroom and legal experience as a positive one. He described his public defender as nice, fair, and always willing to discuss what was happening with the teenager before they entered the courtroom.

“He was nice and tried his best to not just keep me out of jail but to do better,” Neely said about his public defender.

The two would meet at the detention center before court to talk about the case and make sure Neely understood what would be happening in court, the teenager said. It seemed the attorney had reviewed his case before meeting. The attorney always seemed to be preparing him for the outcome, flat out telling him if there was no chance Neely would be able to go home or avoid jail. Before leaving court, the public defender would always ask Neely if there was anything he wanted to ask or say to the judge.

Magistrate Domine “was cool” because she gave Neely several chances before sending him to the DOC, he said. She always emphasized that what was happening in the home was important and played into his case, he said.

“Everyone helped me understand, but I was at the point where I took everything for granted,” the teenager said. “I was just focused on getting out and not what could happen in the future that might put me back in jail.”

McIntosh feels fortunate to have worked in the Elkhart County courts because they’re reasonable and fair, and different from what she’s experienced in other jurisdictions where detention alternatives vary and similar options don’t exist. That’s what helped Neely, she said.

He hasn’t thought about what he might change if he could altar the legal system, but the teenager said nothing stands out because he feels he was treated fairly by everyone involved.

“I can’t say there’s things I wouldn’t do, but I don’t know what I would do,” he said. “If I had a wand, I’d show you and I wouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

In contrast, Bridger and his mom, Sharon, said they’d have much to change with the system.

At first, Bridger stayed in juvenile detention about a month longer than expected because his court date kept getting pushed back. It would be rescheduled for the following Thursday, but then he would learn just before then that it was again continued for the next week.

Bridger’s original public defender would inform him of the change, but that’s about all, Bridger and his mom said. The lawyer didn’t seem briefed on anything.

Sharon Bridger said her repeated phone calls to the public defender often went unreturned, and she wasn’t able to get answers about her son’s case.

His mom was searching for a local residential drug rehab to use rather than having her son sent to the DOC or a 30-day commitment program, but she said that wasn’t available and her insurance wouldn’t pay for that type of program.

“There needs to be more creative options available,” she said.

She turned to other parents of youth in the juvenile justice system, and she said at one point someone told her what to expect from the legal system.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents ... many seemed to feel that it didn’t really matter if you had an attorney or not,” Sharon Bridger said. “The judge operated a certain way and nothing would change that.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

  2. Do I have to hire an attorney to get co-guardianship of my brother? My father has guardianship and my older sister was his co-guardian until this Dec 2014 when she passed and my father was me to go on as the co-guardian, but funds are limit and we need to get this process taken care of quickly as our fathers health isn't the greatest. So please advise me if there is anyway to do this our self or if it requires a lawyer? Thank you

  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  5. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

ADVERTISEMENT