The ability of juvenile judges to step into the lives of young people and try to prevent them from entering the court system has been enhanced.
A new law takes effect July 1 allowing courts to coordinate intervention programs at the local level, and some courts statewide are already participating in a national grant-funded pilot program to assess at-risk youth and how more juveniles can be kept out of the detention system.
Even as new and non-traditional options are embraced, some in the juvenile justice system say these early intervention efforts don’t compensate for what else is happening in Indiana’s juvenile justice system and on balance the system is not always doing what they see as best for children.
“This is a give and take process that has both good and bad,” said Vanderburgh Superior Juvenile Judge Brett Niemeier. “I think we’re ahead of the curve in many ways, and everyone has become more diligent in finding alternatives. But the bad is that sometimes when you’re trying to find what’s best for everyone, you almost feel as though your hands are tied and what you have to do isn’t what you think is the best solution.”
Starting July 1, the juvenile courts will have more authority as provided by House Enrolled Act 1107. Authored by Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, the law permits local judges to create voluntary preventive mentoring and tutoring programs for kids and teens who school officials identify as at-risk for suspension, expulsion, or referral into the juvenile court system.
The law stems from a model program Hamilton Superior Judge Steven Nation created in Westfield, which he says has been successful since it began in 2009. The judge believes the program has helped prevent juveniles from entering the criminal justice system.
“We’re hoping that they might never be identified or labeled as a juvenile with a cause number in our system,” he said. “Instead of sitting back and waiting for something bad to happen, and trying to correct the problem later, we’re trying to address the problem in the beginning.”
While each county will have flexibility in establishing its program, Judge Nation says the approach taken in Hamilton County is through the probation department and initially involved individuals who are already in the system. Adults and high school students have volunteered their time to mentor and tutor those who need it, he said.
So far, it’s working. Judge Nation pointed to two students who had disciplinary problems at school and were on the road to suspension or expulsion – one with a father in prison for killing the mother and another whose aggressive behavior led to the father suffering a fatal heart attack after the child struck him in the chest with a baseball. In both cases, the juveniles were assigned volunteer mentors who have worked with them closely. The judge believes those relationships kept the juveniles out of the court system.
“Some people say you can’t fix it, that they’ll be in the system no matter what,” Judge Nation said. “We’d have to write off all these kids if that were true, and I just can’t accept that.”
Detention alternatives, risk assessment
The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative through the Annie E. Casey Foundation centered on Indiana as the first state to attempt a partnership addressing disproportionate minority contact with the system, and Marion County was the first site several years ago to focus on detention alternatives such as the creation of a risk assessment tool that uses day and evening reporting, curfew enhancements, home counseling, and programs for lower offenses. The county saw a significant decrease in detentions, and now as part of a three-year grant cycle other counties are being brought into that fold. Lake, Porter, and Tippecanoe counties are the first, and others are expected to begin using the program later this year.
In Porter County, Superior Judge Mary Harper has been leading an effort to create a risk assessment tool for those who might have mental-health issues – something that other counties are also starting to participate in through mental-health diversion programs. Judge Harper said she’s observed about a 50 percent success rate when it comes to identifying those who can be diverted without entering the juvenile system.
“This is an important part of what Indiana is working on as far as juvenile justice, and hopefully we can establish this statewide,” she said. “It’s not simply a detention initiative, though. This is a great opportunity to expand involvement with the community and have that broad input from education officials and the mental health professionals, as well as just those in the courts and with law enforcement.”
While juvenile judges are excited about some of these new options, they express concern about the overall state of the system given changes in recent years. One of the most significant changes that has impacted the courts began in 2009, when during a special session of the Indiana Legislature lawmakers serving on a conference committee took away what had been judges’ decision-making power on juvenile placement and gave it to the state Department of Child Services. Juvenile judges, advocates, and lawmakers expressed outrage about the change they say they didn’t know was being discussed, but efforts to repeal that provision have not been successful, and the law remains intact. Since the law took effect, the DCS has approved about six out-of-state placements, according to director James Payne, and juvenile judges say overall placements are down significantly, as the law took away state funding for secure detention facilities and left that to counties to pay for if a judge ordered it.
For some of the juvenile judges on the front line of these cases, fewer placement options is not a positive.
Judge Niemeier says the fact that “every rock is being uncovered to see if placements are practical or make sense” is a good change, but he doesn’t like the outcome when the result often means settling with a placement alternative that isn’t the best for the child. For example, he and other juvenile judges say that sending a child back to the family is often the opposite of what’s needed and the available state providers the DCS approves aren’t as trusted by a local juvenile judge.
St. Joseph Juvenile Judge Peter Nemeth agrees.
“The mantra of our DCS has been that every case can be solved by sending kids back home to the parents or situation that created this problem,” he said. “They are very out of touch with the reality of what we’re seeing from the bench.”
Judge Nemeth says his placements overall have gone down in the past year, and that has directly corresponded to costs rising and success rates decreasing in keeping juveniles from repeating illegal behaviors. While he sees early intervention as a positive, the judge says he often faces difficulty on the local end from school officials in working with the courts on HEA 1107-type programs.
“Some of these programs might work in some places, but not everywhere. That flies in the face of judging each case on its merits, and it goes to taking (authority) away from counties and placing it with the state. No one is happy with what’s happening on that, and I think we’ve been on a down slide for some time,” he added.•