Why Indiana Locks Up More Children and Teens Than New York

VirSarah Davis’ son has been held in juvenile detention so many times that the reasons are blurred in her mind. He had an “outbreak” at school. He was caught with a gun. He escaped from house arrest.

One thing she does know for sure, though, is that he was 10 years old when police first took him into custody from their South Bend home.

“He kept saying, ‘This is a scary place,'” said Davis, who thought the ordeal was over when the court released him 15 days later. Instead, she now says, “That was just the beginning for us.”

In Indiana, juvenile arrests and incarcerations are occurring at a rate about 40 percent higher than the national average. That’s higher than almost every Midwestern state, according to a one-day federal census prior to the coronavirus pandemic. These young people are held in county detention before judges rule on their cases. They are being removed from their homes to be hospitalized in private facilities. And they get involved in state correctional facilities.

It’s an issue that has caught the attention of world leaders, and lawmakers made some changes to juvenile detention policies earlier this year. However, it remains unclear whether the legislature is interested in further reforms.

During the eight years that Davis’ son was in and out of custody, treatment and government institutions, his mother said he was different when he came home. And he often acted like he was still there: asking permission to open the fridge and grab a lemonade. He wore rubber shoes in the shower.

“I feel like my son is being institutionalized,” Davis said.

The consequences of imprisonment and confinement can be devastating for children and young people. Research into juvenile incarceration has found that incarcerated youth are less likely to graduate from high school and may increase the risk of recidivism.

“The justice system creates its own trauma,” said JauNae Hanger, executive director of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. “Any time you put a child in a locked-down situation, you’ll potentially do more damage.”

In Indiana, black youth are more than 2 1/2 times more likely to be incarcerated and 3 1/2 times more likely to be conscripted than their white peers. Nationally, the discrepancy is even greater.

Across the country, growing awareness of these issues and the decline in juvenile arrests helped fuel a dramatic nationwide decline in juvenile incarceration in the late 1990s. Incarceration and incarceration in Indiana have also declined. While the state is locking up fewer juveniles than it used to, it has made less headway than others.

Few children and youth are incarcerated and government data is limited. But the federal government has, since 1997, conducted a one-day census of juveniles in detention and forced labor. The latest available 2019 census found that Indiana has approximately 1,200 incarcerated children and youth. That’s more than states with significantly higher populations — including Illinois and New York.

Why Hoosier Youth Are Incarcerated

Some Indiana legislators, court officials, and attorneys pay attention to this. Last year, a state task force published recommendations for reforming the juvenile justice system. These included some policy changes already passed by the legislature, such as B. Limiting placements of children under the age of 12 and requiring counties to use risk assessments to determine if a juvenile needs to be incarcerated.

The state’s progress is positive, Hanger said. But she and other advocates believe Indiana needs to take more aggressive steps.

“It’s really time we took a step back and structurally said, what do we need to do differently?” Hangar said. “Where are the laws in this state actually leading to the criminalization of young people?”

To date, Indiana has largely relied on local communities to reduce juvenile incarceration.

Prosecutors, police and courts decide what to do when young people break the law. Some of them, like Marion County’s system, have prioritized alternatives to juvenile detention — and significantly reduced the number of children and young people in custody. However, many other counties locked up children and youth in 2019 at the same rate as in 2016, according to an analysis commissioned by the State Reform Task Force.

Advocates say Indiana courts are arresting many children and youth who should remain in the community. The majority of juveniles detained prior to trial are charged with misdemeanor offenses. These include nonviolent crimes such as theft, possession of marijuana, and disorderly conduct. Some children and young people are imprisoned for status offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults, such as B. Running away and missing school.

“There is no therapeutic value for a 10-year-old who is in detention — or a 13-year-old who is in detention. There just isn’t one,” said Liz Manley, senior advisor for health and behavioral health policy at the University of Maryland.

Previously, Manley was Assistant Commissioner for the Children’s System of Care in New Jersey. This state deploys mobile response and stabilization teams to intervene when children are in need. The teams match families with emergency aid aimed at keeping youth in their own homes and communities. In some cases, these teams bring young people to inpatient treatment.

“There are many steps that can be taken to prevent this young person from touching a place of detention – particularly when it’s a non-violent crime,” Manley said.

In Indiana, juvenile detention is ‘the lowest part of your safety net’

Davis and her son live in South Bend, where the St. Joseph County Probate Court handles juvenile cases.

The St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center — where Davis’ son was being held — faced a lawsuit in 2017 over the use of solitary confinement. It was alleged that the facility held an 11-year-old boy alone for days for periods of 23 hours. The lawsuit was settled in 2019.

Executive Director Bill Bruinsma, who took office this year, helped draft the settlement. He said there have been improvements to the facility’s environment and staffing levels. Now he said the staff to youth ratio is four to one instead of eight to one.

Juveniles may only be restricted to rooms if they pose a danger to themselves or others, and staff must reassess the risk every 15 minutes according to the comparison. Bruinsma said the facility also revamped staff training and practices to focus on trauma-informed care.

“We’ve made a big culture shift,” said Bruinsma, a psychologist who has worked in juvenile justice for nearly three decades.

The number of young people accommodated in the youth welfare office has declined in recent years. Bruinsma said only the highest-risk youth would now be detained or committed.

Bruinsma argued that the detention of some young people was essential for the safety of the community and for these young people.

“In Indiana, the youth system in every county is the bottom part of your safety net,” Bruinsma said. “So when schools fail and parents fail and medical systems fail and mental health systems fail, guess who takes care of it?”

When children and juveniles are incarcerated in South Bend, they are held at the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center.  Dylan Peers McCoy/WFYI

When children and juveniles are incarcerated in South Bend, they are held at the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center. Dylan Peers McCoy/WFYI

What sets St. Joseph County apart from other Indiana communities is that it sends significantly more juveniles to the state juvenile detention center. In five years, Marion County was the only place that sent more young people into state holdings. It’s the state’s largest county and has more than three times the number of youth between the ages of 10 and 19 than St. Joseph County.

For the past five years, the number of young St. Josephs pledged to the state has ranged from 21 to 68 per year.

Bruinsma said only a tiny fraction of the juveniles who go through St Joseph Court are committed to the state and it is an important treatment option in some serious cases.

Eventually, if communities stop detaining and committing young people in serious need, those youngsters could face even more devastating consequences, Bruinsma said. He pointed to deadly gun violence in South Bend and other Indiana cities.

“It’s not an advantage for the kid,” Bruinsma said. “If I put him back in a situation where it’s completely unsafe for him, you know, and he’ll get killed. From my point of view, this is a catastrophe.”

That’s a concern shared by Mom Davis of South Bend. But Davis said instead of helping her son, the detention made things worse. He was arrested at the age of 17 for gun-related offenses and charged as an adult. He is currently in the county jail awaiting sentencing.

“He’s going to start his adult life with a crime,” Davis said. It “smashed quite a bit of stuff for us.”

Davis believes that the eight years her son spent in the juvenile justice system prompted him to begin his adult life in prison.

CLARIFICATION (November 16, 2022): This story has been updated to clarify that Davis’ son is currently being held in the county jail. He’s not in prison.

Contact WFYI Education Reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @dylanpmccoy.

Contact WFYI Criminal Justice Reporter Katrina Pross at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.

Pross is a Corps member of Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

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