More than 20 years of evidence suggests that finding the right help for juvenile offenders is a better approach than locking them up. Allen County is wisely moving to that model with a push from Superior Court Judge Daniel Heath.
The judge formally notified state officials Wednesday of the county’s interest in joining the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a program created in 1992 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in response to increasing rates of juvenile incarceration. If selected, Allen County would join eight other communities already participating. The Indiana General Assembly allocated $6 million in the biennial budget to move toward adopting the initiative statewide.
The program could lead to the Allen County Juvenile Center serving less as a detention unit and more as a center for treatment intended to keep juveniles out of trouble and out of the judicial system. Results elsewhere show it’s a positive trade-off.
In the 27 states where JDAI has been adopted, the 110 communities participating are seeing fewer juveniles arrested for serious offenses. They are realizing savings by not building or expanding detention facilities. They are seeing a reduction in the disproportionate share of minority youth detained, in contrast to increasing rates nationwide.
There are good reasons for keeping children from behind bars. Researcher Richard Mendel describes detention as the slippery slope into juvenile justice’s deep end. Youth who have been incarcerated are more likely to drop out of school and to use drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to be re-arrested, less likely to find jobs and less likely to form stable families.
Placement in locked detention – particularly if it leads to a lengthy period of correctional custody – interrupts the natural maturational process through which most young people age out of delinquent behavior, Mendel wrote in a 2009 review of JDAI.
Heath is hopeful that Allen County will be selected because it has a detention center, whereas other counties must pay to house juveniles elsewhere and might be more likely to look for alternatives to detention.
Even today, Allen County doesn’t use the Wells Street center unnecessarily. After a risk assessment, 47 percent of youth who come into the system are referred to the Detention Alternatives Program. Home detention and a day-reporting program are among the alternatives used. The latter allows youths to attend classes, learn skills and receive supervision without being locked up for drug and alcohol use and other low-level offenses.
Still, the initiative will inevitably reduce detention rates further. The judge said the new program will force his court to do some soul-searching in determining the right outcome for each juvenile. It’s not about saving money, he said.
We have a moral obligation to go through and ask these questions, Heath said.
About 100 youth are held at the Juvenile Center at any time, according to the judge. It opened in 2004, at a cost of $30.5 million.
The initiative represents a dramatically different way of handling juveniles. But a process that allows young offenders to make a mistake and then receive help in avoiding more trouble promises to better serve both young people and taxpayers.