MERRILLVILLE | The Lake County Juvenile Court judge said he is looking to find new ways to make justice less confining for underage offenders.
Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. told a gathering of law enforcement and social workers Friday morning he wants to intensify the Indiana Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative that Indiana and Lake County have been collaborating on for more than three years.
Indiana Supreme Court Justice Steven David was one of a half dozen to speak about the program's success in Lake and seven other counties at a breakfast gathering at the Patio Restaurant.
It had reduced detentions in all eight counties by more than 40 percent at the end of 2012 and has led to a nearly 19 percent reduction in new juvenile delinquency cases.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson were among those attending the event.
"The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative will expand this year to 11 new counties," Michelle Tennell, the state director, said.
Indiana, which joined the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in 2010, is one of 39 states in public-private partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to eliminate unnecessary juvenile detentions and show that positive youth development and public safety are not in conflict.
"It's a proven success," David said. "I was skeptical, but trust it and watch the results."
Stefaniak, who took charge of juvenile court and its 146-bed juvenile detention facility three months ago, said the inmate population now ranges from 30 to 50 juveniles awaiting resolution of their cases.
He said another 30 juveniles are free to go to school under an order they must otherwise stay home, and 16 are under a similar in-house order and also wear electronic monitoring devices as an added security measure.
Joann Price, Stefaniak's detention alternative coordinator, said they are looking to deepen their program by establishing an evening reporting center at an area Boys & Girls Club so juveniles under court supervision, but with no parent available after school, would have a place to do their homework or receive counseling.
"It's a work in progress," Stefaniak said. "You don't detain a kid because you are mad at them and don't know what else to do with them."
Tennell said the program uses objective data to replace fear-driven decisions. Courts in the program assess a juvenile as a public-safety or flight risk based on the severity of the alleged offense, a juvenile's past history with the court, stability of the family and other mitigating and aggravating factors.
She said it primarily helps keep teenagers with development and mental issues or who have been abandoned by their families from being locked up with hardened juvenile offenders.
She said the program also speeds the resolution of cases to weeks from months and reduces the time juveniles must put their lives on hold while courts decide what to do.