A 15-year-old girl sat outside the courtroom in Hammond City Hall with her mother, making small talk as she waited for her case to be called in front of the Lake County Teen Court.
The Hobart teen was with a friend about 2 p.m. July 7 at Cabela’s in Hammond when a security guard caught them stealing such items as a keychain, deer hunting pants and a lighter.
Because it was the girl’s first offense, a Hammond police detective withheld asking prosecutors for charges to be filed. Instead, the case was referred to Teen Court.
The Teen Court program in Lake County is coordinated by the Crisis Center Inc. Gavin Mariano, coordinator for Teen Court in Hammond, said the program gives teens an alternative to the traditional trajectory of juvenile justice.
At a Teen Court hearing, a case is reviewed and a sentence is handed down by a jury composed of teens. The teen jurors typically had their own case heard by the court or volunteer for the program.
“They are delivering justice to their own peers,” Mariano said.
The program is one of the ways officials in Northwest Indiana are trying to curb the number of minors who end up incarcerated for offenses committed as juveniles.
For the first half of 2015, Mariano said 102 teens participated in Teen Court in Lake County. A majority of the offenses the teens were accused of committing were battery, resisting law enforcement and conversion.
The Hobart girl faced seven jurors at a hearing last year with one juror later recusing herself because a relative works at Cabela’s.
The youthful jurors asked her why she stole the items, if she was still friends with the girl she was with and what punishment she received at home. A local attorney volunteers as the presiding judge to guide teens through the process.
The girl told the jury a friend convinced her to participate in the theft.
Her mother, who was present with her in court, also explained to the jury her daughter has since paid $350 in restitution to the store.
The girl stepped out of the courtroom so jurors could deliberate her punishment. A few minutes later, she was sentenced to a verbal apology to her mother and five jury duties.
Sitting in the witness box, the girl faced her mother as she apologized to her.
“I caused all this drama in the household,” she said.
The girl paused as the volunteer attorney handed her tissue to wipe her eyes. The girl shook her head as she looked at her mother.
If the case had not been referred to Teen Court, she could have faced a charge of conversion, a Class A misdemeanor.
The program uses Lake County Juvenile Judge Thomas Stefaniak’s courtroom in Crown Point and the courtroom of late Hammond City Judge Jeffrey Harkin. Crisis Center CEO Shirley Caylor said in a prepared statement they plan to meet with Hammond City Judge Pro Tem Gerald Key to discuss Teen Court continuing there.
In Lake County, efforts to reduce the number of incarcerated teens have led to nearly a 50 percent reduction in teens housed in the Juvenile Detention Center.
Stefaniak said the number of minors who were staying at the facility was once 80 to 104. That number since has dropped to 30 to 50 teens. The average stay for a juvenile is about 13 days.
Diane Weiss Bradley, Lake County chief probation officer, said within the Juvenile Court there also is an opportunity to have the case dismissed if the teen completes requirements created by the judge.
Weiss Bradley said those are the cases where the court has determined it was more of a foolish crime than a dangerous one that put someone at risk.
The teens usually have to steer clear of getting any new charges, attend school, complete community service or seek counseling services.
Stefaniak said Lake County is one of the 19 counties participating in the state's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Porter and LaPorte counties in northwest Indiana also are part of the initiative.
The program’s goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated minors. The initiative reaches beyond the state, with a total of 40 participating states, according to the Indiana Judicial Center’s website.
Joann Price, the county’s alternatives initiative coordinator, said the initiative has several strategies it implements into the daily operations of the Juvenile Court.
Price said one strategy includes screening teens when they are sent to the Juvenile Justice Center to see if they are a risk to the community, or if an alternative such as an ankle monitor would be more appropriate.
She said the court also explores what community resources are available for the teens, especially for those who aren’t dangerous but the court doesn’t quite trust to go home yet.
“We want to shift the burden of these alternatives to the communities,” she said.
A couple of the strategies focus on data-driven decisions and analysis of how the court is functioning. Price said the county uses Quest, a case management system. That system allows them to track how the cases are being resolved.
Price said it also allows them to examine if there are any racial disparities among the teens coming through Juvenile Court.
Kathleen Guzek, deputy prosecuting attorney for the juvenile division, said officials are beginning to track the number of juvenile cases that are waived and transferred to adult court.
Stefaniak said the initiative also has provided his court grant money to work on truancy issues.
The court targets students who have five unexcused absences to figure out why the child is missing school. If it is because the family needs some sort of assistance, the court provides referrals to community programs to help them solve their problem.
A parent can be prosecuted by the state if their child has 10 unexcused absences. Stefaniak said the Juvenile Court wants to reach the child before the problem reaches 10 absences.
Last year, a strike team was created to work with the various school districts to address truancy.