Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Far fewer youths file into Marion County's juvenile lockup each day, a key result of a reform effort that has reduced crowding and diverted thousands of children into programs outside the center's walls.But architects of the overhaul of the juvenile justice system see the changes as only a starting point. In the third year of a program fueled by a national advocacy group, officials are aiming at ending racial disparities in punishment and transforming a system that many see as perpetuating delinquency rather than healing it.
Changes have come quickly. The county's juvenile court judge and magistrates reject more delinquency cases submitted by prosecutors or schools. Some get resolved short of court by involving offenders' families in the case.
And a reception center screens youths more stringently, sending more lower-risk offenders home before trial instead of locking them up.
That might sound like a way to promote crime rather than stop it. But juvenile court Judge Marilyn Moores says data collected through the project have helped earn police support for the approach.
"Kids who are low-level offenders need to be out in the community and stay connected with the community, because it positively affects them," she said.
In detention, "the low-level offenders become high-level offenders."
The Annie E. Casey Foundation selected Indianapolis as a new site for its three-year Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in 2005. The program began two years ago, just as crowding and unsafe conditions inside the center brought heavy outside scrutiny.
The Marion Superior Court's executive committee took the reins of the center, installing a new director and overhauling security and other procedures. A settlement agreement this year with the U.S. Department of Justice ushered in federal monitoring for up to three years.
The Casey program provides $100,000 a year for a coordinator, travel to previous Casey sites and other expenses. It also provides experts who have brought the reforms to dozens of cities and states, including Cook County, Ill., home to Chicago. [Mark Godsey]