INDIANAPOLIS — Melissa Gibbs had to move out of state to protect herself and her son once he was arrested for standing his ground at home against gang members who had shot up the family house.
“The whole situation was like a big nightmare to us, and you never look at the situation the same,” she said, “because I’m on edge all the time because once you go through something like this, I don’t think you’re ever the same.”
Gibbs’ son spent a week in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center until the family brought forth video evidence that proved the boy was protecting his house, and as a result, all criminal charges were dropped.
The Gibbs family odyssey through the juvenile justice system took a month-and-a-half to resolve itself.
“Throughout the course of those six weeks, when we were going through it, nobody ever reached out to us, so we actually reached out to activist groups who came to court to make sure that things were done the right way,” said Gibbs. “I’ve tried to tell him that things come and go in the court system, they don’t always go in your favor even when you’re right, so he got to see that because he’s trying to figure out, ‘What did I do wrong? I protected my family. I didn’t have any other choice, and I’m being arrested for it like I’m being punished for it.’
“His faith in the judicial system is out the window because it’s hard because we try to tell our kids, but they don’t listen until they go through it.”
The Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force, with state lawmakers, judges, law enforcement, court officials and youth advocates, met Monday to examine the gaps in Indiana’s juvenile justice system and how to make the system more equitable and effective.
The task force has already learned that Indiana doesn’t have the data to determine if its approach is working.
“There is a limited capacity to collect, track and use juvenile justice data to across the state to really examine and evaluate how the system is working and how to better improve system performance in youth outcomes,” said Nina Salomon of the Council of State Governments, who is facilitating the task force approach for Indiana and finding shortcomings. “One I know the legislature addressed in the last session in terms of young people being placed in adult jails pre-trial, other issues related to the use of fines and fees and expansive lists of offenses in which a young person could be transferred or waived into the adult criminal justice system.”
Senator Fady Qaddoura, a Democrat representing Indianapolis’ northside, said data simulations run for educational studies can be applied to the juvenile justice system statistics.
“Those simulations can be applied to criminal justice, and simulating the juvenile population Indiana to look predictively at what are the things that behavioral issues, demographics, the geographies where juveniles tend to offend or commit offenses, and then circulate through the system, so we could be empowered to basically prevent many juveniles from attending the system prior to offending.”
Avon Community School Corporation School Resource Officer Chris Lyday said some communities don’t have the advantage of alternative services once law enforcement must remove a disruptive student from a school environment.
“For a county, where no youth assistance program model exists, the only choice a police officer has is to refer to the criminal justice system, and there was not another option for them as other than to refer them to the prosecutor or detention, and then a determination is made to get them into a program or not.
“That does not happen at the point of arrest for counties that do not have a youth assistance program model, so that data is going to be skewed on where those resources exist because we don’t have a consistent model across the state that we’re using.”
In Marion County, plans have been drawn up to relocate the juvenile detention center to the new Community Justice Campus while Mayor Joe Hogsett promises that programs for at-risk youth will be included in next year’s community anti-violence spending.
“I think we are making a significant commitment to juvenile justice and perhaps reforming juvenile justice in ways that relocate from 25th and Keystone to the Community Justice Campus and making an intentional effort to focus on particularly young people who have no business possessing weapons, getting the guns out of their hands,” the mayor told FOX59.
Gibbs said that while her son promised never to return to juvenile detention, she worries other kids may not have the support they need to stay out of the system.
“We gotta get in touch with these kids and have real-life conversations about what they need and what they’re missing and what they’re lacking and not just keep looking at them as numbers or situations, cases,” she said, “because if we don’t start with them, we gotta know what they need first. We can’t assess what they need from the outside looking in. That’s impossible.
“I think it puts a big, ‘I’m not going back,’ idea in their heads for some of them, so then we run into issues with them maybe not complying with police, or some of them build up a wall where they feel tougher now, and they feel like they can handle it.
“Some want to stay away, but some are like, ‘Oh, that’s nothing. I get in there, and I’m around a whole bunch of other kids like me. We’ll come up with a better way of things to do when we get back out,’ and it’s not conducive to break the cycle.”
The task force is set to meet again in a month to begin analyzing the data and developing a reform plan to be adopted by the end of the year.