The number of youths finding themselves in the court system has been on a downward trend nationally and statewide, with the number of juvenile delinquency filings across Indiana steadily decreasing for the last decade.
Between 2006 and 2015, Indiana juvenile delinquency filings dropped from 27,835 to 14,297, a 48.6 percent decrease, according to the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2015 Judicial Service Report – Judicial Year in Review. Indiana court filings for juvenile status offenses, such as truancy, have also seen a decline, down 44.3 percent between 2006 and 2015. State judicial leaders credit a variety of initiatives designed to keep youth out of the court system for that decline, with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative chief among them.
Beginning in Indiana counties in 2006, JDAI is a collaborative effort between the Indiana Supreme Court, Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, Department of Correction, Department of Child Services, and Family and Social Services Administration that is meant to offer alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders. The program is currently in 32 of Indiana’s 92 counties, which represents about 69 percent of Indiana youth ages 10 to 17.
Rather than automatically send juvenile offenders into the Department of Correction, JDAI offers alternative methods of discipline, such as day or evening reporting programs, home detentions, law enforcement “knock and talk” initiatives in which officers check in on young offenders at home, and curfew checks, said Nancy Weaver, juvenile strategist supervisor for the Indiana Supreme Court, which leads the JDAI effort.
Juvenile crime as a whole is on a downward trend, specifically in counties where there is a JDAI program, said Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steve David, who leads the judiciary’s JDAI efforts. The key to the initiative’s success is evidence-based decision-making, David said — that is, looking at statistics that show the most effective forms of punishment based on the severity of an offense.
Recidivism data is the most common evidence used in the JDAI realm, said Marion County Juvenile Judge Marilyn Moores. The only legal bases for detaining a child in Indiana are if they are a danger to themselves or the community, or if they are at risk for not appearing in court, Moores said, but often juveniles are detained for behavior she described as “kids being kids,” such as mouthing off to an adult or authority figure.
“What we learned by reading data is that connecting and criminalizing behavior that otherwise would just be kids being kids, any connection to our system is a risk factor for increasing their chances of recidivism,” the judge said.
Although there are no specific types of offenses that juveniles are likelier to commit, Moores said any sort of violent crime, such as robbery or rape, or a crime involving a gun, could warrant detention. But absent those types of serious circumstances, JDAI has proven that lower-level offenders are better served through out-of-jail disciplinary measures, she said.
Recent data from the Indiana Department of Correction’s Division of Youth Services is evidence of the positive effects of initiatives such as JDAI, said Chris Blessinger, the division’s executive director. Since 2006, the average daily population of young offenders within the DOC has fallen more than 50 percent to around 444, Blessinger said.
But that decrease isn’t only the result of JDAI, Blessinger said. Within the DOC, the Division of Youth Services has worked to change the culture of incarceration to keep more kids out of prison, she said.
Using data-driven performance-based standards, the DOC and its Division of Youth Services tracks a wide variety of statistics, such as the safety of juveniles living in confinement; their access to necessary services, such as mental health treatment; the quality of the DOC’s reintegration services; and other similar initiatives. Using that data, which is officially recorded twice a year, Blessinger said the division can pinpoint specific areas that need improvement. Those improvements have led to lower average daily populations.
“We’re getting the rights kids in the right place in the right services,” Blessinger said.
The “right kids” are the highest-level offenders, Blessinger said. Often, those offenders are juveniles who have exhausted all other disciplinary options and are incarcerated as a last resort, she said.
Similarly, Devon McDonald, deputy director and chief general counsel of ICJI, said some Criminal Justice Institute initiatives have worked alongside JDAI in keeping kids out of the court system. For example, ICJI is a champion for “stay in school” initiatives, such as after-school reading and tutoring programs that encourage students to stick with their education all the way through high school while also keeping them off the streets during non-school hours.
Further, ICJI funds law enforcement training programs designed to help officers have better interactions with juveniles.
“Research indicates that a 14-year-old doesn’t have the same capacities as a 28-year-old. They’re more impulsive than anything else,” McDonald said. “These programs try to train law enforcement officers that when they initially contact these kids, they shouldn’t be coming up waving guns and badges, but instead should take a mentoring approach.”
David agreed that the downward trend in juvenile delinquency filings is the result of general juvenile justice reform efforts, but said he’s heard from law enforcement and probation officers that JDAI has been one of the most significant and impactful reforms.
However, the justice has also heard from juvenile judges that JDAI has made their job harder because they must examine more options when determining the appropriate sentence for a young offender. But that extra work is not a bad thing, David said. Rather, it’s a sign that the state judiciary is taking its juvenile justice reform efforts seriously and is looking for ways to keep youths engaged in their communities rather than isolated behind bars.
Moores agreed and said the advent of JDAI in Indiana has forced her to hone her critical-thinking skills and more closely examine her cases before making a juvenile disciplinary decision. Additionally, the success of JDAI in Indiana has led the judiciary to begin taking steps toward evidence-based decisions in both adult courts and in children in need of services cases, she said.
“It’s shocking that this hasn’t been done heretofore,” Moores said.•