The story behind Indianapolis’ 16-year campaign to reduce youth incarceration

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In an empty retail space in Far East Indianapolis, about 30 boys pull plastic chairs in a circle.

They met here twice a month.

“Some of you guys have been through so much in your life and are still going through it, but you’re still persevering, man,” band leader Kareem Hines said as he walked the circle. addressing the group at the start. of the two-hour session.

The discussion is raw. They talk about mental health, relationships, and children who have been shot and killed in the community. Hines distributes news articles about recent crimes involving children.

This group is called New BOY, a mentorship program for youth and young men.

In a state where the youth incarceration rate is 40% higher than the national average, Indianapolis stands out. The county has significantly reduced the number of children and youth in custody after making a pledge about 15 years ago. New BOY is one of the programs used instead.

Many teenagers have been involved in the juvenile justice system – 40% are court ordered to participate. The communities in which the boys live are plagued by gun violence, Hines said.

“A lot of our young men go through a lot of trauma. They have a lot of pain and pent up aggression,” Hines said. They often face neglect, abuse and a general lack of support at home, “and we find that manifests itself in a really self-destructive way.”

New BOY serves more than 100 young people aged 6 to 18 and offers karate and boxing lessons. They go on a college trip, and each teenager is assigned a mentor. Adults need to build trusting relationships with children before trying to change their behavior, Hines said.

“We don’t judge, we try to connect with them first,” he said.

Marion County’s punitive past

New BOY tactics are a stark difference from the punitive approach to juvenile justice that was pervasive in Indianapolis.

Judge Geoffrey Gaither oversees Marion County Juvenile Court. He started working for the system in the 1990s. Then it was not uncommon for more than 200 children, more than the facility could hold, to be locked up at one time.

“Children were sleeping everywhere. They were on mattresses, in the chapel or in the gymnasium, etc. “said Gaither. “The philosophy that existed was that the best way to protect children was to keep them locked up.”

Since then, Marion County has taken steps to reduce the number of youth incarcerated at the center. On average, around 68 young people were detained at the center each day in 2019. In 2021, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continued to disrupt schools and families, the average number of young people was 37. To keep fewer young people detained, the court instead uses alternatives, such as electronic monitoring and community mentorship programs such as New BOY

Christine Kerl, chief probation officer for Marion County, said the change began in 2006, when Indianapolis embarked on a nationwide program called the Alternatives to Juvenile Detention Initiative. Marion County was the first county in Indiana to participate in the program. Now over 30 counties have joined.

Counties that participate in the JDAI collect data on the youths they detain and commit to detaining fewer youths for minor or moderate offenses.

“It took courage to make that decision,” Kerl said. “When a young person is in detention, we know where he is, we know what he is doing. But we also discovered that we were causing more harm than positive influence to young inmates.

Gaither added that the county is charging fewer children with crimes than it has in the past since participating in the JDAI. He said the prosecutor’s office used to approve almost all charges against the youths. Children could end up in detention for crimes as minor as breaking curfew by walking a dog late at night or stealing gum from a convenience store, he said.

“We’ve really found that every case doesn’t have to go through the system. Not every child needs to be prosecuted,” Gaither said.

Research shows that detention can have a cascade of negative impacts for young people. Mental health issues are exacerbated and teens are less likely to graduate from high school. They are also more likely to commit crimes again and later end up in the adult prison system.

JauNae Hanger, an attorney and executive director of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, said trauma is imposed on young people every time they are locked up.

“Our detention centers have really been modeled a bit like adult incarceration,” she said. “They are not therapeutic in their approach.”

“I could so much better”

Although Marion County has taken steps to reduce its detention rate, it still locks up some children.

One of those children was Cam. WFYI does not use its full name because it is underage.

Cam was detained at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center when he was 13 years old. He brought a gun to his middle school because he was fighting with other students and wanted protection, he said.

Cam, who is now 15, said the detention was traumatic. He was detained there for about a month.

“So I was really in pain,” he said. “And I didn’t care what nobody said, I cried every night…because I knew I could do so much better in this world than that.”

The week after his release, Cam played with a gun he found in his mother’s car and shot himself in the leg. His sister found him covered in blood.

The day he returned from the hospital, the police took him back into custody for another two weeks.

“My probation officer was there, they were knocking on the door,” he said. “They searched the house. And then they made me walk outside without crutches and everything.

Cam’s mother Candice Richey said her son was not allowed to take painkillers for his injury while in custody, and when he was forced to take a shower he slipped and fell. She said the guards wouldn’t help her up.

“We’re not talking about a grown man, if he made a grown man’s decision,” she said. “We’re talking about a 12, 13 year old kid.”

A representative for the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center did not respond to comments prior to publication.

Cam is now a freshman in high school. After being released from custody, probation required him to participate in New BOY. He said he was hooked from the first meeting and never missed a day.

“It was amazing,” Cam said. “The first time I went there, I spoke. Like, they make speaking so easy for someone who’s been through so much. So it was easy to talk, on the spot, right from the start.

Cam’s probation ended months ago, but he’s still going to New BOY

Contact WFYI criminal justice reporter Katrina Pross at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.

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

Contact Dylan Peers McCoy, education reporter at WFYI, at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @dylanpmccoy.

Copyright 2022 WFYI Public Media. To learn more, visit WFYI Public Media.

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