Herald Times on April 24, 2017 by Brittani Howell
At noon on Sunday, Tom Rhodes stood on the steps of the Indiana University stadium and surveyed the crowd in the parking lot. Around 150 young adults looked back at him, squinting— sometimes painfully — in the bright sunlight. “Small group today,” Rhodes said of the crowd, which he called the Little 5 Road Crew.
Rhodes, the community corrections director and assistant chief probation officer for Monroe County, would know. He has been helping with the annual Little 500 pretrial diversion program for the past 26 years.
The program is meant to help manage the slew of charges — mostly underage drinking and public intoxication — that come through during the weekend of Little 500. The recently charged defendants were offered the opportunity to have their charges dismissed if they met three requirements: paying a fee of $428; spending three hours picking up trash at the stadium and the surrounding campus and neighborhoods; and taking a drug education class for a few hours in the evening. After that, it’s just a matter of staying on the right side of the law for a full year.
Twenty-five county employees worked all night to make sure the offenders’ paperwork was prepared and ready to go so the day could run as efficiently as possible. In his introductory talk, program director Jeremy Cooney told the defendants the entire justice system had coordinated to make it possible for them to knock out the service and move on with their lives.
Monroe County Prosecutor Chris Gaal said that one time through the program seemed to be enough for most offenders. “Most of these people, we never see them again. That’s the overwhelming majority,” he said. When the pretrial diversion program first went into effect, the offenders reporting to the Charlotte T. Zietlow Justice Center to participate could number 300 or 400 or more. But over the past few years, Gaal said, the crowd has been steadily dwindling. This year’s count of defendants was 166—11 fewer than in 2016. Gaal said Little 500 is losing some of its marketing appeal as a “party weekend,” and that an increase in police presence has helped keep attendees from getting too wild.
Rhodes isn’t sure what’s causing the downward trend, but he does know that the involuntary cleanup crew he had to manage on Sunday was among the smallest he’s ever had, as well as the most mellow. In his years of assisting the program, on bright spring days or in the midst of downpours, he’s wrangled a few rowdy groups. The defendants in Sunday’s crowd, though they were cutting up and laughing before the cleanup began, were a little more subdued.
“Welcome to Little 5 Road Crew!” Rhodes called out from his place on the steps. A few people let out half-hearted whoops in response. A few more winced, neither Rhodes nor their neighbors helping at all with their hangovers.
Rhodes explained that the crowd was to split into groups to cover the stadium parking lot and nearby neighborhoods. He held a large black trash bag aloft and pointed to an empty pizza box lying on the pavement. It’s easy, he said: Place trash, exhibit A, into bag, exhibit B.
“Most of the groups have done a tremendous job cleaning, and I know you’re going to all be very hard workers,” Rhodes said, before dismissing the defendants to their groups for the next few hours.
But as the crowd dispersed to head out into the community, no one picked up the pizza box.