More than 700 kids from Marion County are locked up in the Indiana Department of Correction, serving time in gloomy facilities like the old Indiana Boys' School, now known as the Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility. In terms of both sheer numbers and per capita, our local juvenile court gives more kids more severe sentences than any other county in the state.

The local pattern of institutionalization contradicts research showing community-based sentences are more effective at reforming most juvenile offenders. It is an expensive pattern, too, costing county and state taxpayers a combined $32 million a year, leading to a nasty fiscal fight between the state and local governments.

And it has to stop.

That is the message of state Rep. William Crawford (D-Indianapolis), the chair of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee. "Other counties have looked creatively at ways to reduce the high human and financial costs of juvenile incarceration, but Marion County has not," Crawford says. "Elected officials need to stop posturing and address this situation."

Marion County already owes $38 million to the State of Indiana for the cost of incarcerating juveniles the county court sends to state-operated facilities. The recent county budget approved by the City-County Council essentially ignored the overdue debt, balancing the books only by deciding not to pay the state for at least another year. But state officials with their own budget problems are in no mood to wait, and last month cited the past due juvenile detention bill in refusing to release $2.5 million in Marion County option income tax.

Marion County's elected treasurer, Greg Jordan, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Mayor Bart Peterson this fall, has responded to the incarceration problem in a time-honored fashion: He sued 'em. Jordan filed a lawsuit in November, claiming that the Indiana Constitution mandates the state pay the full cost of housing juvenile offenders. It may be a tough case to win, given that there is a state law directing counties to pay half the cost of juvenile incarceration, a law nearly all other counties follow and Marion County itself has honored since 1989.

Not exactly desperados

Filing lawsuits and refusing to pay is one way to respond to the county's problem, but Crawford suggests a more direct approach: We can stop sending more of our local kids to the prison system than any other county in the state.

Crawford points out that Marion County, with approximately 14 percent of the state's population, accounts for nearly 40 percent of the juveniles sent to the Department of Correction (see "A Dubious Distinction" chart). Crawford sees the $16 million a year the county incurs for juvenile incarceration as both lost dollars and lost opportunities. Several studies and reports, including a recent analysis by the American Youth Policy Forum, show success and cost savings realized from using community-based rehabilitation as an alternative to institutionalizing juvenile offenders. "We could save some of this money to fund any number of programs to reduce recidivism," Crawford says.

Crawford's call to reduce juvenile commitments is bolstered by state-collected data suggesting that many of the youth sent to the Department of Correction are not exactly desperados. Over half of the children incarcerated with the D.O.C. in November of this past year were not sent there for violent crimes. For 52.7 percent of the males and 56.6 percent of females, their most serious offenses were property crimes, controlled substance offenses or juvenile status violations such as truancy and run-away charges.

Marion County Superior Court Judge James Payne, who oversees the county's juvenile court, insists he sends only kids with serious offenses to the D.O.C. Payne says that a comparison of his commitments with the number of children referred to his court system would likely reveal that Marion County's high incarceration rate reflects the area's serious juvenile crime problem, rather than a propensity to send kids away. (Such a comparison was not available from the D.O.C. or state judicial or court agencies.)

"Part of the issue is that urban cities generally attract more serious kinds of problems than rural communities," Payne says. "There are different problems that exist in different cultures and areas."

But Crawford says that Payne's explanation does not account for the fact that Indiana's other urban counties, including Lake and Allen counties, send a far lower percentage of their youth to the D.O.C. than Marion County does.

"The fundamental issue is still there," Crawford says. "Why does Marion County send more of our juveniles to the Department of Correction than any other county?"

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - ....