“Justice by geography.”
That’s how state Rep. Wendy McNamara referred Monday to disparate approaches to juvenile justice across Indiana. The Evansville Republican co-chairs the Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force, a panel charged with examining – and possible revamping – the way courts handle cases involving young people.
Counties across the state now have different policies and procedures in place for things such as when and whether to lock children up. The task force, an offshoot of the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana, met Monday to kick off the second phase of a process begun last year.
This new phase will include data analysis and examinations of systems in place in several counties, including Allen. The result will be recommendations, which could mean proposed legislative changes, by the end of this year.
“We want to make sure we have the most robust conversations we can,” McNamara said. “This hasn’t been done in my lifetime.”
Close inspection of entrenched systems – particularly those that affect some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens – is rarely a bad idea, and the task force is right to tackle questions of what may or may not serve children and their communities best.
It should also be careful not to endanger effective policies already in place.
The Commission on Improving the Status of Children was created in 2013 through legislation from Sens. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, and John Broden, D-South Bend.
It has done important work to address problems such as improving outcomes in cases involving the state Department of Child Services.
The bipartisan task force – co-chaired by Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, and comprising lawmakers, law enforcement officers including LaGrange County Sheriff Jeff Campos, lawyers and jurists including Wells Circuit Court Judge Kent Kiracofe – began meeting last September.
A preliminary assessment found possible areas of improvement inrecord-keeping, services provided to children in the judicial system and ways courts can keep kids from being held behind bars.
Julie Whitman, executive director of the commission, said the next phase “is a deeper dive into the data and a working-group process to develop specific policy recommendations.” It will be led by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit research organization.
“This group has the potential to make a huge difference,” Crider said.
Kiracofe, though, in an interview after the meeting, said he’s leery of one-size-fits-all fixes. The only judge in Wells County who hears juvenile cases, he said a more uniform approach to some policies such as juvenile detention might hamper informal, out-of-court procedures designed to keep children out of lockup.
“I bet as a percentage of total filings ... every single juvenile (case) starts at an informal process,” Kiracofe said. “... We can be a little more nimble ... do things on a case-by-case basis.”
That’s not feasible in Allen County, where juvenile cases far outnumber those in Wells County.
Allen Superior Court Judge Andrea Trevino oversees the local judicial system and said she supports the task force review. She is not a member of the panel, but said the group should consider the resources of counties affected by any changes.
Allen County juveniles can be monitored through ankle bracelets rather than being held in custody, for example, but that requires staff – something that might not be available in smaller counties with fewer staff.
Task force members should be careful to weigh those types of concerns.
“There always needs to be a balancing act,” Trevino said.