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Judge seeks Allen role in juvenile alternative program

With a stroke of his pen, Allen Superior Judge Dan Heath signed what he hopes will be a watershed change for Allen County’s juvenile justice system.

Heath, who has been the juvenile judge in Superior Court’s Family Relations Division for just a few months, signed a letter of interest to be included in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. The community-based program moves low-risk youth from secure detention into alternative, evidence-based therapeutic programs.

Allen County already has a detention alternative program, which diverts about 45 percent of troubled juveniles away from the county’s detention center. But Heath believes more can, and should be done, to keep more kids out of lock-up.

“Declining budgets, along with new regulations from the federal government might require additional staff if the county can’t figure out how to lower its secure detention population,” Heath said in a written statement.

So he wants the county to be included in the national Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, already in place in eight Indiana counties.

Known by its acronym, JDAI, the program is a 20-year-old brainchild of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It grew out of concerns about rising juvenile crime rates in the late 1980’s and early 1990s.

The program began as a pilot in Broward County, Fla., in 1992 and focuses on reducing reliance on secure detention for juveniles. It also focuses on reducing racial disparities in confinement, improving public safety, saving taxpayer dollars and stimulating juvenile justice reforms, according to the foundation’s website.

Using better assessment tools, troubled juveniles are more effectively placed in programs that will help with rehabilitation. According to the foundation’s 2011 report, annual admission to juvenile detention dropped by 38 percent where the program was implemented, and juvenile crime went down.

The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative is a “more refined” way of channeling the kids into the most effective programs, Heath said.

The Allen County Juvenile Justice Center, built under the direction of Heath’s predecessor, Judge Stephen Sims, regularly houses between 95 to 100 juveniles per day, Heath said.

“We want to aim them (into being productive adults),” he said.

Six years into the program, Marion County houses about 65 juveniles per day, though the county’s population is about three times the size of Allen County.

Marion County has been implementing the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative since 2006, according to state officials.

In 2010-11, the program expanded to Johnson, Porter, Lake and Tippecanoe counties. Last year, Elkhart, Howard and Clark counties joined, according to state officials.

This year, $6 million was added to the state’s budget to expand the program throughout the state, and the lead agencies involved in the program – the state’s Supreme Court, Department of Correction, and Criminal Justice Institute – have been trying to lay the foundation to expand it statewide, according to a newsletter about the program.

Heath wants Allen County to be included in the 2014 expansion of the program, and he is optimistic the county will make the cut.

“I believe Allen County needs to be in the program,” Heath said.

While he believes the county is doing a lot of things well in the juvenile justice area, Heath said he is not sure whether the children are being helped most effectively as they move into adulthood.

Studies show that locking kids up disrupts the natural growth process in a way that makes certain negative situations more likely to occur later on, such as dropping out of school, chronic unemployment or future criminality, Heath said.

In his first few months on the bench, Heath felt there was a need to do more for the county’s troubled juveniles and has already added an advisory board for the juvenile justice center. Putting such administrative infrastructure in place could help the county’s chance for inclusion, he said.

The program requires a lot of community collaboration – between police departments, school districts, prosecutors and the courts, he said.

Allen Superior Judge Charles Pratt, also in the Family Relations Division, called the decision to apply for the program a “win-win” for the county.

“It is extraordinarily important,” he said, adding he was proud of the work Heath’s put into it so far. “This is a hallmark moment.”