DOUG ROSS: Indiana won't free money to protect jailed kids

2014-06-01T00:00:00Z DOUG ROSS: Indiana won't free money to protect jailed kidsDoug Ross doug.ross@nwi.com, (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 nwitimes.com

When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence announced he didn't plan to spend the money to meet federal standards for prisons, I was surprised. Lake County is spending millions to get out from under the federal consent decree requiring improvements at the Lake County Jail.

But what Pence and the federal government are talking about isn't the same as what got Lake County into trouble with the U.S. Justice Department.

It's worse.

Pence is balking at spending money on additional prison guards and other measures to protect prisoners from rape and sexual assault.

Including juveniles.

State Rep. Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, is appalled. Hale, a Northwest Indiana native, has been focused on trying to reduce the incidence of rape and sexual assaults for Hoosiers in general, and she got funding approved for a study this year.

The cost of providing the extra security at adult prison facilities to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act standards is high. But to not spend the necessary money to protect juveniles is inexcusable.

"Providing for the safety of our children is certainly warranted in this case," Hale told me Tuesday.

"That's the last thing our young people in trouble need is to be exposed to these kind of dangers," she said.

Let's put that in perspective. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report last June said 10.4 percent of juveniles in Indiana's detention facilities were the victim of sexual assault just within the previous year.

Those are only the reported assaults, mind you.

Believe it or not, that's an improvement. A similar report in 2010 said 36.2 percent of youths at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility reported being the victims of sexual assault — the highest rate in the nation. 

According to the Indiana Department of Correction, 108 juveniles from Lake County were incarcerated in state juvenile detention facilities last year. Only St. Joseph County had more, at 113.

And of Indiana's four juvenile detention facilities, only three met the federal standards for reducing the incidence of rape and sexual assault.

"We don't want prisons to be easy places or comfortable places, necessarily, but they do need to be as safe as possible," Hale said.

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act became law in 2003, but it took until 2012 to develop the standards with which prisons and jails must comply. Pence said in May that Indiana won't meet the federal deadline.

Whatever the crimes those juveniles committed, protecting them from sexual assault is essential.

Beyond the obvious psychological damage to the victim, there are concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, turning a victim into a future abuser and lawsuits that could cost the state millions of dollars.

The cost to provide this protection for the state's incarcerated juveniles is an estimated $7 million a year. Compared to the damage it would prevent, it's a bargain.

Hale and I brainstormed about options to solve this. I suggested a few names of Northwest Indiana legislators, including Republican Hal Slager of Schererville. This isn't just a Democrat issue, and it isn't just a female issue. It's going to take a bipartisan effort, by women and men alike, to solve.

Because Indiana's juveniles must not be sentenced to a high likelihood of sexual assaults while behind bars.

Editorial Page Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or (219) 933-3357 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

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