INDIANAPOLIS — Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears on Thursday announced a pilot program now underway that aims to reduce the number of juveniles entering the criminal justice system, and instead introduce them to programs and opportunities to help change behavior.
“I think it’s important to note that as we deal with this issue of violent crime in our city, the one thing that we have learned and the one thing that we have found is that when you give young people opportunity and hope, they do not commit crimes,” said Mears.
The Juvenile Second Chance Program was a joint announcement between the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and the Boys & Girls Club of Indianapolis.
“The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office is going to decline to prosecute certain low-level, nonviolent offenses and instead refer those individuals to the Boys & Girls Club,” said Mears. “We being the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office are going to pay the fees associated with that membership to hopefully get kids involved proactively in programming that the Boys & Girls Club is able to offer.”
The program is designed to invest in younger people who are accused, for the first time, of committing low-level, nonviolent offenses. A spokesperson for the Prosecutor’s Office said it is possible a juvenile who has had a previous interaction with law enforcement could be referred to the program, but that would be on a select case basis.
“We are trying to invest in young people,” said Mears. “Our goal is not necessarily to punish people, but what can we do to help change behavior.”
He said the way to change behavior is by making programming available for individuals and giving them a constructive opportunity.
“Ultimately, I would rather spend money to provide this opportunity than prosecuting children for making mistakes,” Mears explained.
He said when juveniles are introduced into the criminal justice system, it typically sets up a cycle of challenges that may impact the rest of their life.
Those eligible for the program, Mears said, would be given a referral letter that tells them they are being given a second chance to avoid the criminal justice system before charges are filed — if they take advantage of the program.
Maggie Lewis, CEO and executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Indianapolis, said programs they provide throughout Indianapolis include mentoring, sports, college readiness, homework assistance and more.
One of the programs, the Pivot Program, is run by Erik Davenport.
“There’s so many young men and women who get over that barrier, and we look and say yes, but we forget about the hundreds that never made it,” said Davenport.
He said this is an opportunity to look at how to lower barriers, prepare juveniles for life experiences and get them ready to succeed.
“Diversion programs are important and just to prevent them from being locked up, which is the main, positive reason,” said Brandon Randall, director of engagement for V.O.I.C.E.S Corp.
He also said it’s important to connect those youth with a mentor and help keep them on track. He believes this program will do that.
“The research is very clear on what outcomes are going to happen if we put kids behind bars instead of keeping them in the community,” said Randall. “I am excited to see that the prosecutor is investing in this type of program.”
Randall said their organization works with youth and families in the community.
“I think it’s really easy to simply look at behaviors and decisions and kind of case a judgement on that, but the reality is, for young people in particular, a lot of these decision making and impulsive things that they’re doing, a lot of that is a result of trauma that they’ve experienced,” said Randall. “What we know is true is, if we offer a support to counter that and offer spaces for young people to start healing and to get the basic, necessary resources that they need, they make better decisions.”
Randall believes this program is a good way to interrupt the trajectory of a young person moving along in the criminal justice system.
“The community has always said we need young people to stay with us, we don’t need kids locked up,” he said, adding that he is glad to see systemic changes in Marion County and believes this will have an impact.
“Prosecutor Mears has done a couple of things where he’s led, where you may for a second say, ‘Is this the first thing we would think of as law enforcement?’ No, I would say people have to question for a second,” said Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal.
He said he believes there needs to be an opportunity to give youth a second chance prior to putting somebody in jail or juvenile detention for their first offense, and he knows there will be members of the law enforcement community that may not agree with that.
“If they’re going to go to jail, they’re just gonna be around others. They’re not gonna learn anything in jail,” said Forestal. “If this is an opportunity for someone who didn’t have it, especially financially, I think Prosecutor Mears led good on this one.”
FOX59 reached out to the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in response to Thursday’s announcement. FOP President Rick Snyder said, “Our Policing Professionals always welcome alternatives to criminal intervention especially for first time juvenile offenders on misdemeanor charges.”
“However all effort should be made to prevent such incidents from occurring on the front end. That is why our organization invest heavily in youth education and crime prevention efforts.”
“We are especially concerned though with the Prosecutor’s subtle mention of issuing trips to the Boys and Girls Club for level 6 felonies. Such crimes include felony battery with injury, criminal confinement, criminal gang activity, escape, intimidation, residential entry and strangulation. Victims we speak with do not agree that such offenses warrant a Get Out of Jail Free Card from Prosecutor Mears,” said the FOP.
During Thursday’s announcement, Mears said their office will not include in this program cases that involve firearms. He said those will still go through the juvenile system, but their first inclination in cases of misdemeanors or level 6 felony offenses will be to look towards this program.
Mears reiterated that this is for nonviolent, low-level offenses only, which do not include a firearm. The money for this program is being used from the prosecutor’s office’s existing budget.
Mears said success of the program will be measured by looking at two metrics: whether they see recidivism and how often the youth in the program are following it and taking advantage of the opportunities they are being given.
If there is concern, a deputy prosecutor will follow up and check in with the individuals, Mears said.
FOX59 also reached out to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department regarding the new program.
“IMPD’s primary responsibility is to enforce laws and keep our community safe. Part of that responsibility includes embracing programs which prevent crime and give our youth a fair opportunity to live up to their potential. The IMPD supports the diversion program announced today by Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and the Boys and Girls Clubs. Working together we can turn the tide of violence in our community and create a safer, more prosperous city for all,” said Chris Bailey, IMPD assistant chief of police.