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Indiana juvenile justice task force wants minimum age for detainment, other reforms

Steve Burns / WTIU

A year after a state task force was created to improve Indiana's juvenile justice system, recommendations for change are now headed to lawmakers.

On Tuesday, the Indiana Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force endorsed a broad range of proposals that would establish statewide norms and tweak parts of the complex laws for how courts and law enforcement interact with youth.

The recommendations include setting a minimum age of 12-years-old for detainment by police, boosting support for youth reentering the community, and establish consistent standards for juvenile diversion programs while allowing counties flexibility. The 12 recommendations were split into several categories: diversion and supervision, out-of-home placement, data, and funding and services.

The proposed changes come as an indepdent analysis found many gaps in Indiana’s juvenile system, including a lack of statewide data about youth in the system and how counties operate with inconsistent policies and procedures.

The study, by the non-profit and nonpartisan Council of State Governments, also found about 80 percent of state funding was going toward residential services, such as secure detention facilities, while only 20 percent was going to community resources that could be used to keep youth out of detention. The analysis was commissioned by the task force 

Youth re-entering society after being in the custody of Department of Corrections also had a scarce amount of support from the state, the analysis found.

The task force is co-chaired by Sen. Michael Crider (R-Greenfield) and Rep. Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville). Members voiced their concerns about the current system throughout Tuesday’s meeting, and stressed the importance of looking at the system as a whole.

“Different people would bring different pieces here and there, but there was no really comprehensive look at our system from the top down,” McNamara said.  “It's just been a wonderful opportunity to look at our strengths and our weaknesses and areas for improvement.”

In addition to discussing the recommendations, the task force also heard from a teenager who had been through the juvenile justice system.

Ronelle Collins, 17, is a community engagement intern with Voices, an organization that works to help youth who have encountered law enforcement.

Collins said when he was going through the court process, his public defender and probation officer explained to him the legal terms and jargon, but that his family members were often left in the dark, confused about the process.

Collins said there is also a need for police officers to engage more with youth and relate to them.

“There should definitely be more engagement because nowadays, it's so normalized that police are bad, that kids might not even want to try to build that kind of connection,” he said. “Keep trying to connect with us because we will come around.”

The task force was created in September 2020 to do a deep look into the state’s juvenile justice system and find opportunities for improvement. The task force includes lawmakers and those who work in various parts of the justice system.

The approved recommendations will be drafted into legislation and introduced in 2022 Indiana legislative session set to reconvene next month.

Contact WFYI criminal justice reporter Katrina Pross at Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.

Pross is a Corps Member of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.