Task force unveils recommendations for Indiana’s juvenile justice system

IN Focus: Indiana Politics

INDIANAPOLIS – A state task force has unveiled new recommendations to improve Indiana’s juvenile justice system.

Some of those ideas will be proposed to the state legislature this session.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force formed in April 2020 and consists of state lawmakers from both parties, law enforcement officials and activists, among others.

The task force found nearly 80% of the cases referred to juvenile court are for low-level offenses.

One of the goals behind the reforms announced Tuesday is to use alternatives to juvenile court and detention to better help young people and prevent them from re-entering the criminal justice system, according to State Rep. Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville), the task force co-chair.

During its Tuesday meeting, the group heard from 17-year-old Ronnelle Collins, who was 15 years old when he was arrested and entered the juvenile justice system.

“Being disciplined is what really helped me change,” Collins said of his experience.

Collins, who now serves as a community engagement intern for the Indianapolis organization VOICES Corporation, spoke to the task force to try to help other kids who might find themselves in the same spot.

He wants to see the juvenile justice system include families more throughout the process.

“I feel like there wouldn’t be as much stuff going on if families were more involved with their kids,” Collins said.

Kia Wright, founder and executive director of the VOICES Corporation, agrees. A former juvenile probation officer, Wright now serves on the task force.

“We have to center the youth and families in this experience … and just trying to figure out a way for a holistic approach,” Wright said.

Additional family involvement is one of the priorities behind the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force. The group recommends checking in and following up with kids and families during and after incarceration.

It also suggests setting a minimum age of 12 for juvenile detention, with certain exceptions, such as when a child poses a danger to themselves or others.

The task force also calls for young people to be screened for diversion to alternative programs like behavioral health treatment.

“We want to make sure we’re placing individuals in the right location,” State Rep. McNamara said. “Not based on geography, but based on need.”

The task force also wants to look at ways to use about $100 million of existing state funding more effectively to help younger Hoosiers, including potential grants to be awarded to county programs. And it wants to develop updated state guidelines for juvenile probation.

Ronnelle Collins said he’s optimistic about the ideas proposed at the Statehouse.

“I do think there is people in the system that actually want to help you, and there’s actually people out there that actually want you to do better,” Collins said.

State Rep. McNamara will now work on legislation that includes these proposals to be introduced this session.

Any reforms that require more funding will have to wait to be approved until 2023 when the state budget is rewritten, she said.

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