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Activists applaud city’s new criminal justice approach

December 21, 2016 | The Indianapolis Recorder | Link to Article

Decrying a criminal justice system that has been “in many respects, unjust,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett revealed plans for an overhaul.

The announcement was made Monday at Old City Hall to a standing-room-only crowd of city employees, law enforcement officers, media personnel, civil services organizations and advocacy groups, and various other stakeholders.

The proposed plan is the result of roughly six months of research and analysis by the Indianapolis Criminal Justice Reform Task Force, which was announced by Hogsett during his State of the City Address in May. The Task Force included community and neighborhood groups, City-County Council members and representatives of several city and county government agencies.

With an uptick in crime, an increase in emergency medical runs involving mental illness, and the city on pace to set a record for opiate overdose 911 calls, Hogsett says, “our system is bursting at the seams.” The city’s “core challenges” — crime, poverty and a budget deficit — converge at the Marion County criminal justice system, the mayor added.

The crux of the new plan is identifying mental illness and addiction among low-level, nonviolent offenders and providing help rather than just jail time.

“In the grips of mental illness or addiction, a low-level, non-violent offender is processed again and again through the criminal justice system … without assessment or treatment for their underlying illness,” Hogsett said. “Over time, either their criminal behavior escalates to the point that they end up committing a violent felony, or their addiction or mental illness escalates to the point that it ends up claiming their life.”

The so-called “Indianapolis Model” outlined in the Task Force’s plans includes tactics to be used at the pre-arrest, post-arrest and pre-trial stages, such as enhanced crisis intervention training for all officers and 911 dispatchers, and the creation of mobile crisis units of officers and health professionals.

The Task Force also recommends the creation of a new criminal justice complex that would include an Assessment and Intervention Center where arrestees are assessed for treatment needs; a 2,600- to 3,000-bed jail to replace current facilities; a consolidated courthouse for both criminal and civil cases; and more.

The proposed complex would have more beds than are currently available in the county, but Hogsett said the plan aims to leave as many beds empty as possible.

“The question is not how many jail beds do we need. The question, rather, is how many jail beds can we avoid,” he said at the announcement, eliciting applause from the crowd. “Let us build a system of justice that measures success in the lives it saves and not in the number of lives it detains.”

Following the Indiana Supreme Court’s suggestions on changing how cash bail is used is another component of the plan aimed at keeping fewer people detained.

The Task Force plans to recommend a site for the new justice complex by the end of January.

The plan also calls for better tracking of data and continual analysis, plus enhanced transparency for the public.

Throughout his speech, Hogsett was interrupted by rounds of applause and shouts of support and enthusiastic agreement from the audience.

The Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN) — a local movement for racial and economic dignity and equity that has focused on mass incarceration — was one group well-represented among the crowd. In the past, IndyCAN was instrumental in derailing previous plans to build a new criminal justice center, and the group also had Hogsett’s ear throughout the six months devoted to developing the latest strategy.

After hearing Hogsett’s announcement, Rev. Mel Jackson, pastor of Christian Love Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the IndyCAN board of directors, said he felt “encouraged,” but acknowledged the immensity of the task at hand.

“(Hogsett’s) identification of the core issues and the need is right on target. It’s the how-to that we’ve got to face. We have to find a way to do it,” Jackson said, reiterating the necessity of the new approach.

“I’m not an anti-animal person, but if we can find a way to rescue animals, we have to find a way to rescue people.”

Sharon Trotter, who is also on the IndyCAN board of directors, said she was “elated” about the proposals.

For Trotter, the reforms have a deeper personal significance; her 24-year-old grandson is diagnosed schizophrenic and bipolar, and he has been in and out of police custody for offenses like sleeping in vacant apartments.

She thinks the new approach could help break that cycle.

“They lock him up, they keep him a few days, they let him go,” she said. “He needs help. He won’t go with us, but if he gets locked up and they demand that he gets treatment and divert him to treatment, then he can get some help.”

Both Trotter and Jackson made a point to stress the importance of community involvement in carrying the changes forward.

“This is the beginning, and it’s doable, but it’s about us the people. We’ve got to hold (leaders) accountable and fight for Indianapolis,” Trotter said. “We can change things; I know that. … It takes love, compassion, action. Get involved. You might not have somebody you directly know who’s affected by drugs or alcohol, but believe me, sooner or later, it’s going to hit home.”

Jackson added: “The historically underserved community has got to invest some trust alongside the boots on the ground. … That means starting in the household to get on board this train; it could be a lifesaver.”

To read the full 120-page report from the Indianapolis Criminal Justice Reform Task Force, visit criminaljusticereform.indy.gov.