‘Getting kids out of the system’ Alevizos says county’s juvenile justice system on right track

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The Michigan City News Dispatch on 3/5/2019 by Kelley Smith

La PORTE – For the second consecutive year, La Porte County has ranked among the top six Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) counties in the state.

And for consistently exceeding JDAI standards, La Porte Circuit Court has been awarded $49,000 in performance grant funds, up from the $38,000 it was awarded in 2018.

“It’s been a passion of mine to reform this process, and we have a lot of good people on board,” said Judge Thomas Alevizos. “It just feels kind of good to know that we’re on the right path and that other people acknowledge this.”

The judge talked about the state of the local juvenile justice system when he took over Circuit Court 12 years ago.

“I inherited a juvenile system that operated, quite frankly, the opposite of how academic research shows it should,” he said. “… We were sending like 50 kids per year to the [Indiana Department of Correction], which is a lot for a county our size. And with a lot of them, they weren’t even letting them finish their program – often putting them into another one that, we found out, had about a 95 percent recidivism rate.”

Additionally, low-risk youth were being detained with high-risk kids, which – according to Alevizos – created an “extremely high likelihood” that the low-risk kids would become delinquents.

At the time, minority youth in La Porte County were 4.5-5 times more likely to be arrested, and twice as likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, he said.

However, since becoming a JDAI site in February 2014, La Porte County has made significant improvements to its juvenile justice system.

By focusing on identifying kids who are at risk of becoming delinquent, and acting early to divert them from incarceration, Alevizos said, the county has seen a 52 percent decrease in secure detentions, a 57 percent drop in the average daily population, 52 percent fewer felony filings, and 60 percent fewer commitments to the IDOC.

The judge said La Porte County has been successful because of the collaboration of key stakeholders, including himself, the juvenile magistrate, juvenile probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, police officers, school officials, mental health professionals, clergy, community organizations, employees of the juvenile services center, and the Department of Child Services.

La Porte Circuit Court also created a data-driven, accountability-based tool to help determine which courses of action would be most effective for helping to divert juveniles from continuing to commit crimes. Local JDAI Coordinator Mike Callahan is responsible for analyzing that data and using it to tweak recommendations.

“We have now eliminated any bias in our system,” Alevizos said. “Everything is just about one-to-one. But, despite our efforts, we still are seeing kids of color about 3.5 times more often than we see Caucasian kids, unfortunately.”

Alevizos provided two examples to illustrate major improvements in juvenile justice at the local level.

The Nova program is one way the county works to keep at-risk youth out of trouble. With one facility in La Porte and one in Michigan City, kids report after school for up to four hours, do their homework and participate in programming provided by staff from the juvenile services center.

Another example highlights the strong collaboration between local stakeholders.

The judge said it used to be that when police were called to the same house over and over to deal with an incorrigible child, they would take them into juvenile detention and change the dynamic of that child’s household.

But now, instead of arresting the child, police contact DCS, which will defuse the situation, interview everyone involved, and get the family the services it needs, whether they be from a psychologist, social worker or other professional.

“It saves kids from being a part of the system,” Alevizos said. “Once you become part of the system, the danger is you stay there.”

Most of the grant money – approximately $40,000 awarded this year – will be used to provide training to local stakeholders tasked with helping La Porte Circuit Court as it continues its reform efforts.

The remaining $9,000 will be used to send five people from the county to a five-day certification course at Georgetown University aimed at reducing ethnic disparity in the juvenile justice system.

“We’re trying to increase the capacity to think collaboratively, and to help us accurately determine which kids need to go into which programming,” Alevizos said.

He reflected on the way La Porte County’s juvenile justice system operated 12 years ago versus today.

“When I first took over here, we were bucking the trend in a negative way,” Alevizos said. “Nationally, juvenile crime had gone down; but in La Porte County, juvenile crime was increasing. But we are now seeing a marked decrease in juvenile crime here because we’re getting kids out of the system early.”

Goal is to eliminate confinement

There are 200 Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative counties in the U.S., spread throughout 39 states and the District of Columbia. Indiana has 33 participating counties, which account for 70 percent of the state’s juvenile population.

JDAI, an initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, believes the “juvenile justice system’s dual goals of promoting positive youth development and enhancing public safety are not in conflict and can be greatly strengthened by eliminating unnecessary or inappropriate confinement.”

The eight core strategies of JDAI are:

• Collaboration

• Objective Admissions

• Expedited Case Processing

• Reducing Racial Disparity

• Data-driven Decisions

• Alternatives to Detention

• Special Detention Cases

• Conditions of Confinement