The son of VirSarah Davis has been taken into juvenile detention so many times that the reasons are confused in his memory. He had a “blowout” at school. He was caught with a gun. He fled house arrest.
But she knows one thing for sure: He was 10 the first time police took him from their home in South Bend into custody.
“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 says now, “it was just the beginning for us.”
Indiana detains and incarcerates youth at a rate about 40 percent higher than the national average. That’s higher than nearly every state in the Midwest, according to a one-day federal tally before the coronavirus pandemic. These youths are held in county custody before judges rule on their cases. They are removed from their homes for residential treatment in private facilities. And they are engaged in state correctional institutions.
It’s an issue that caught the attention of heads of state, and the legislature made some changes to youth detention policies earlier this year. But it remains unclear whether lawmakers have an appetite for further reform.
During the eight years Davis’ son spent in detention, treatment and in public facilities, his mother said he was different every time he came home. And he often behaved as if he were still there: he asked permission to open the fridge and have a soda. He would wear rubber shoes in the shower.
“I feel like my son is becoming institutionalized,” Davis said.
The consequences of detention and commitment can be disastrous for children and adolescents. Research on juvenile incarceration has found that when young people are locked up, they are less likely to graduate from high school and this can increase the risk of recidivism.
“The justice system imposes its own trauma,” said JauNae Hanger, executive director of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. “Every time you take a child into a locked-down situation, you’re going to inflict, potentially, more harm.”
In Indiana, black youth are more than 2 1/2 times more likely to be detained and 3 1/2 times more likely to be committed to the state than their white peers. The disparity is even greater at the national level.
Across the country, growing awareness of these issues and declining arrests of minors helped cause a dramatic national decline in youth incarceration beginning in the late 1990s. Indiana also declined. While the state locks up fewer young people than before, it has made less progress than others.
Only a small number of children and adolescents are incarcerated, and state data is limited. But the federal government has taken a one-day tally of youths in custody and detention since 1997. The 2019 census, which is the latest available, found Indiana locked up about 1,200 children and adolescents. That’s more than states with significantly higher populations, including Illinois and New York.
Why Hoosier Youth Are Detained
Some Indiana lawmakers, court officials and attorneys are paying attention. Last year, a state task force released recommendations to reform the juvenile justice system. They included some policy changes the legislature has already passed, such as limiting confinement to children under 12 and requiring counties to use risk assessments to determine whether a minor should be confined.
The state’s progress is positive, Hanger said. But she and other defenders believe Indiana needs to take more aggressive action.
“It’s really time for us to step back and say structurally, what do we need to do differently? says Hanger. “Where do the laws of this state actually lead to the criminalization of young people? »
So far, Indiana has relied heavily on local communities to reduce youth incarceration.
Prosecutors, police and courts decide what to do when young people break the law. Some of them, like the Marion County system, have prioritized alternatives to youth detention — and have dramatically reduced the number of children and youth in custody. However, many other counties locked up children and teens at the same rate in 2019 as they did in 2016, according to analysis commissioned by the state’s Reform Task Force.
Lawyers say Indiana courts are holding many children and teenagers who should remain in the community. The majority of young people detained before their trial are charged with minor offences. This includes non-violent crimes like theft, possession of marijuana, and disorderly behavior. Some children and adolescents are detained for status offences, which would not be crimes if they were adults, such as running away and missing school.
“There is no therapeutic value for a 10-year-old child who is in a detention center – or for a 13-year-old child who is in a detention center. There simply is none,” said said Liz Manley, senior advisor for health and behavioral health policy at the University of Maryland.
Manley previously served as assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Child Care System. This state uses Mobile Response and Stabilization Teams to intervene when children are in crisis. Teams connect families with immediate support that aims to keep young people in their own homes and communities. In some cases, these teams place young people in hospital care.
“There are many interventions that can be put in place to prevent this young person from touching a detention center – particularly, when it comes to a non-violent offense,” Manley said.
In Indiana, juvenile detention is ‘the bottom 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 for using solitary confinement. He claimed the facility held an 11-year-old boy alone for 23-hour periods for days at a time. The lawsuit was settled in 2019.
Executive Director Bill Bruinsma, who took over that year, helped draft the rules. He said he has made improvements to the facility environment and staffing levels. Now he said the staff-to-youth ratio is four-to-one instead of eight-to-one.
Young people can only be confined to rooms when they pose a risk to themselves or others, and staff must reassess the risk every 15 minutes, according to the regulations. Bruinsma said the facility has also revised staff training and practices to focus on trauma-informed care.
“We made a big culture change,” said Bruinsma, a psychologist who has worked in the field of juvenile justice for nearly three decades.
The number of young people detained at the juvenile justice center has decreased in recent years. Bruinsma said that now only the most at-risk young people are detained or interned.
Bruinsma argued that the detention of some young people is essential for the safety of the community and for those young people.
“In Indiana, each county’s juvenile system is the bottom of your safety net,” Bruinsma said. “So when schools fail, and parents fail, and medical systems fail, and mental health systems fail, guess who cares?”
Compared to other communities in Indiana, St. Joseph County stands out because it sends significantly more young people to the state’s juvenile correction center. Over the past five years, the only place that has sent more youths to state custody is Marion County. It’s the largest county in the state, and it has more than three times as many young people between the ages of 10 and 19 as St. Joseph County.
Over the past five years, the number of young St. Josephs committed to the state has ranged from 21 to 68 per year.
Bruinsma said only a tiny fraction of young people who go through St. Joseph’s Court are in state care, and that’s an important treatment option in some serious cases.
If communities stop detaining and locking up young people in need, Bruinsma said, those minors could eventually face even more devastating consequences. He pointed to deadly gun violence in South Bend and other Indiana towns.
“It’s not an advantage for the child,” Bruinsma said. “If I put him back in a situation where it’s totally dangerous for him, you know, and he’s killed. It’s a disaster from my point of view.
It’s a fear shared by South Bend’s mother, Davis. But Davis said instead of helping her son, the detention made things worse. He was arrested at age 17 for firearms offenses and charged as an adult.
“He’s going to start his adult life with a felony,” Davis said. It “virtually broke a lot of things for us.”
Davis believes his son’s eight years in the juvenile justice system prepared him to begin his adult life in prison.
Pross is a body member of Report for America, an initiative of Project GroundTruth.