Church celebrates 50 years of juvenile center ministry

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Debra Hill has been with the St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church Juvenile Rehabilitation Circle for only 30 years. She began her monthly ministry to girls locked up at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center two decades after the first church ladies went behind bars to meet Indianapolis’ most vulnerable young offenders.

“We do a little bit of life skills with them and try to help them set goals to make a better living for themselves when they get out of the juvenile system,” said Mrs. Hill at a Sunday dinner honoring the founders of the program and the dozens of volunteers who have followed in their footsteps.

Views about juvenile incarceration have evolved since 1968 as Marion County has shut down a third of the 144 beds inside the juvenile center at 25th Street and North Keystone Avenue.

“We’ve discovered that you don’t have to lock everyone up in order to improve the circumstance and the lives of children, so we employ more programs, more initiatives and what not to help the overall rate,” said Juvenile Division Magistrate Geoffrey Gaither, who has sat on the bench since 1995. “We’ve also been able to reduce the average length of stays kids stay in the detention center, and on top of that, the recidivism rate has begun to drop as well as overall juvenile delinquency rate.”

The Indiana Department of Correction reported last year it took in 102 juvenile offenders from Marion County, while sending 101 back home.

On September 4th there were a total of 405 male and female juvenile offenders from across the state incarcerated at IDOC facilities, filling about 55 percent of the available bed space.

For the past three years, the juvenile recidivism rate for the state has dropped from 35.3 percent in 2015 to 32.2 percent in 2017.

Another IDOC study reveals that the fewer days a young offender spends behind bars, the less likely it is that boy or girl will get in trouble again.

A stay of less than a year in a juvenile facility results in a 30.5 percent chance of recidivism while a one-to-two year incarceration increases the recidivism rate to 51.8 percent, according to the Department of Correction.

“The longer you’re able to stay out, the longer you’re able to stay out,” said Gaither. “The more contacts a child has with the juvenile system in general increases the likelihood of further adult involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Mrs. Hill said confidentiality rules often mean the mentors rarely know whether their counsel with the girls has been a success.

“I’ve run into several of them that have jobs and haven’t been back up to the system, but you never know where they come from,” she said. “There was one girl, she used to talk. She was a talker. All the time she talked about doing this and doing that and doing this, but I did run into her, and she did have a job at McDonald’s. So that was better than having nothing at all, and at least she was out of the system.”

The St. John’s Church ladies minister the second Monday of every month at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center.

They’d like to put themselves out of business.

The Center recently announced it had received a 100 percent compliance rating on its third IDOC audit of the site, the staff and its records.

“I am very proud of the hard work of our Center staff,” said Presiding Judge Clark Rogers. “The staff at the Detention Center, regardless of their position, work extremely hard in a challenging environment, and that hard work is reflected in our audit scores.”