The number of local juvenile offenders detained each year has been decreasing dramatically during the past decade.

Last year, 145 children, most of them teenagers, were secured at the Bartholomew County Youth Services Center, according to center records.

That’s a 27 percent drop from just one year earlier and 47 percent lower than 2012.

More significantly, the latest figure is 51 percent below the average 298 detainees held annually from 2005 to 2011.

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What’s more, there’s no evidence that more young offenders are going out committing additional offenses as a result of not being locked up than in the previous 10 years, said Heather Mollo, Bartholomew County juvenile magistrate.

The 2014 figures were released one year after Bartholomew and 10 other Indiana counties were chosen to take part in a $5.5 million pilot project to reduce the juvenile detention population without jeopardizing public safety.

As of mid-March, Bartholomew County has received $112,020 in state funding through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) program administered through the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

About 63 percent of those funds have been spent on hiring JDAI coordinator Kylene Jones, providing training, purchasing supplies and paying for travel expenses, said Anita Biehle, director of youth services for Bartholomew County.

The remaining $41,350 is being spent on developing detention alternative programs that focus on topics ranging from helping runaway teens to juvenile sex trafficking, Biehle said.

Progress in the JDAI pilot program is intentionally meant to move slowly, both Mollo and Biehle said.

It might be the end of this year, or possibly 2016, before any new programs are implemented, Jones said.

“That’s hard for some folks because they want a quick fix now,” Biehle said.

“But JDAI is a process, not a project,” Jones said.

Making a difference

Rather than the JDAI pilot program, Mollo credits several individuals and organizations throughout the Columbus area for the decline in young offenders being detained.

“They are a direct result of the community’s long belief in using evidence-based practices,” Mollo said.

Among those deserving credit is the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., which has enacted changes during the past 10 years to decrease detention referrals, the magistrate said.

With an average of 31 arrests made annually within BCSC, school personnel meet with court officials and law enforcement once a month to discuss what situations require outside intervention and which ones don’t, said Larry Perkinson, BCSC student assistance coordinator.

“You want to call police when certain laws have been broken, but many situations are best handled in-house with staff and counselors,” Perkinson said. “Our meetings are an evolving process where we all agree to do what’s best for a student and acknowledge that detention is not necessarily it.”

The center, founded 23 years ago to provide care, programming, services and advocacy for minors, also has seen positive results with its shelter care and electronic home-monitoring programs, Mollo said.

Shelter care and home monitoring are credited with keeping the number of repeat juvenile offenders to 26 percent last year, compared to a 41 percent annual average since the center was created 23 years ago, Biehle said.

Pilot program goals

Eliminating the unnecessary detention of youths is just one goal of the JDAI program.

It also strives to improve outcomes and welfare of youth, such as reducing the traumatic impact of detention and keeping children in class, according to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

Another goal of JDAI is keeping the public safe while saving taxpayer money, the institute states.

To meet those ends, the entire county adopted JDAI core strategies developed by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, now followed in hundreds of counties in 39 states and the District of Columbia, Biehle said.

After being admitted into the pilot program, participants began studying the JDAI strategies in depth, as well as examining other related curriculum to effectively cut juvenile detention, Jones said.

But a good part of 2014 also was spent studying and evaluating existing local policies, she said.

“We’re just getting to the meat of the program right now,” Jones said. “That means looking at alternatives and how we can help each child.”

On Feb. 27, a select group of community leaders began what Biehle calls a series of “purpose of detention” meetings.

Consisting of representatives from law enforcement, courts, probation, schools, youth services, mental health and local government, this group will first attempt to come up with a definitive purpose for juvenile detention in Bartholomew County, Mollo said.

“We all have our individual opinions on this subject. But up to now, we’ve never had the opportunity to collectively share them,” the magistrate said.

The group is currently trying to develop a checklist of criteria that are applied to rate each minor for specific detention-related risks that is “reflective of our community values,” Mollo said.

An overall risk score is then used to make the critical decision whether to detain or release an arrested youth, according to the Casey foundation.

The group is scheduled to conduct its next meeting at 11:30 a.m. April 7 at the youth services center.

What’s next

Later in the year, potential programs also will be explored and evaluated.

One program being considered would create Night Reporting Centers, which provides highly structured and well-supervised group activities during a time where minors are idle either at home or with peer groups.

Those activities might range from simply providing help on homework to group therapy sessions focusing on behavior and aggression, Biehle said.

Another potential program is a curriculum for law enforcement officers called Policing the Teen Brain, which helps officers better understand what’s going through a teenager’s mind.

This curriculum first focuses on the reasons why critical reasoning and decision-making skills aren’t normally fully developed until a human being reaches their mid- to upper 20s, Mollo said.

“As I’ve heard it phrased, the ‘gas pedal’ is fully engaged, but the ‘brake system’ isn’t working yet,” Mollo said. “Compulsive behavior is not unusual.”

Once officers better understand how a teen thinks, they are taught a variety of ways to use their new insights in dealing with juveniles, Mollo said.

If approved, many officers — including Columbus Police school resource officers Julie Quesenbery and Eric Stevens — are expected to participate, Biehle said.

This type of training would be useful in what Mollo describes as an all-too-common scenario in her Columbus courtroom.

It begins when officers are called to the scene of a family fight. While the parents seem to “keep themselves in check, the teen gets angry” at the police presence, Mollo said.

Often, that results in a young person being locked up not only for disorderly conduct but also resisting law enforcement, she said.

“The officers I’ve met in other communities who trained on this curriculum said it made a world of difference when they found themselves engaged with a teen’s bad behavior,” the magistrate said.

Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann said he also would like to see safeguards to prevent inappropriate punishment handed down for no other reason than a personal grudge or dislike by someone who abused power or authority.

While the community will have to wait to see what reforms might emerge, Mollo said she believes the long process will bring an entire change in the way Bartholomew County handles juvenile detention.

“Hopefully all of this will eventually be ingrained into the way we do business,” Mollo said.

Eight core strategies

The Indiana Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has established eight core strategies to enhance and improve juvenile justice systems.

  • Limit secure detention to those youth who have committed serious crimes and pose an imminent public safety risk or would fail to appear in court.
  • Use least restrictive, state- and community- partnered, evidence-based, culturally competent practices through the creation of community-based alternatives, to alleviate use of secure facilities and other out-of-home placements whenever possible.
  • Create a culture of collaboration and communication internally, externally and among state and local juvenile justice agencies and community stakeholders.
  • Build effective and efficient data collection and reporting by race, ethnicity, gender, geography and offense at every decision point in the juvenile justice system to ensure data-driven monitoring of outcomes and disparities.
  • Develop policies and practices to reflect and sustain JDAI principles.
  • Ensure objective criteria and juvenile justice decision points to eliminate disproportionate minority contact. 
  • Develop conditions of confinement standards aligned with JDAI and community standards.
  • Encourage development of collaborative, multi-system alternatives that reduce the referrals of youth with minor offenses whose needs are better addressed by other child-service systems.  

By the numbers

Juveniles detained at Bartholomew County Youth Services Center

2012: 276

2013: 198

2014: 145

Top offenses last year resulting in juvenile detention*

  1. Runaway (78)
  2. Battery (59)
  3. Illegal consumption of alcohol (40)
  4. Possession of marijuana (38)
  5. Theft (26)

*Number of children involved in parenthesis.

Average length of stay

Females in 2014: 7 days.

Males in 2014: 13 days.

Source: Bartholomew County Youth Services Center annual report

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.