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Holding Patterns

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Artist Richard Ross seeks to spread light on a topic he feels is often overlooked -- the injustice of the juvenile justice system in the United States and the world. He has documented his research in "Juvenile in Justice," a photography exhibit that has traveled worldwide and will be coming to Indianapolis from March 5 to April 17 at IUPUI's Herron School of Art and Design.

Ross is scheduled to speak on March 5 at 6 p.m. to open the exhibit, and he will participate in a book signing and reception following the event in Eskenazi Hall.

The project features images and interviews from the 1,000-plus juveniles, 200-plus facilities and 31 states that Ross has visited over the course of five years in order to document their stories. The exhibit consists of photographs of the juveniles and of the interior and exterior of the detention facilities, in addition to short excerpts of an interview or description of a photographed situation included with each picture.

According to the Department of Justice, as of 2008, one in four juvenile detention centers in the country were over capacity. - RICHARD ROSS, WWW.JUVENILE-IN-JUSTICE.COM
  • Richard Ross, www.juvenile-in-justice.com
  • According to the Department of Justice, as of 2008, one in four juvenile detention centers in the country were over capacity.

"[There was] one kid in Miami whose mother tried to murder him when he was 15," Ross said. "He ran away from home, joined a bad group of kids, and two months later, he was accused of a violent crime ... no one was killed, but someone was hurt. He was held for four and a half years without a trial, and then when they finally did adjudicate him, he was sentenced for 18-36 months. You have kids who are held for years and years without trial; it doesn't make any sense."

This story was one of many that inspired him to meet the kids and hear them out.

"I just start by listening to kids, which is often an unusual event for these kids, because usually they have adults telling them what to do, and I am the person just sitting there trying to figure out what is going on with their life," Ross said. "Once I do that, I have a better understanding of being able to give the images to people who are trying to figure out how to build better research in the community so these kids don't end up in these situations."

Ross also "incarcerated" himself within a detention cell for 24 hours in May of 2013 to have a better understanding of the living conditions.

Despite a downward trend in the number of detained juveniles, the Indiana Youth Institute shows that Indiana held 932 of them in state facilities in 2012. Programs already exist in Indianapolis, with the Indiana Department of Corrections website specifying lists of holding treatment programs, education programs and community service offender work programs; however, people involved in the system understand there is still work to be done.

The Department of Justice also reported that a juvenile was more than twice as likely to die in a private detention facility than in a public one. - RICHARD ROSS, WWW.JUVENILE-IN-JUSTICE.COM
  • Richard Ross, www.juvenile-in-justice.com
  • The Department of Justice also reported that a juvenile was more than twice as likely to die in a private detention facility than in a public one.

"It's heartbreaking," Juvenile Court Judge Marilyn Moores said in a FortWayne.com article regarding a recent violent outbreak at the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center in Indianapolis. "Some of these kids can go their whole time in detention without one visitor," she said.

Ross said he has seen injustice and misinformation when meeting with imprisoned children. He believes that while the juvenile arrest rate has been decreasing, there are still significant issues to be resolved with the system.

"The population in the system seems to be going down, but when you have a system to deter retribution and rehabilitate when the only thing it does is give retribution to society, it's pretty wrong," Ross said. "As a group, I just felt like somebody had to give them a voice, and for some reason, that became me."

One issue of particular importance to Ross is the age at which children can be arrested in some states. Twenty-two states have no legal minimum defining at what age juveniles can be convicted as adults, and Ross has seen and interviewed children as young as 7 years old prosecuted and imprisoned as legal adults.

According to the American Correctional Association, the average cost to incarcerate a juvenile for a 9-12 month period is between $66,000 and $88,000. - RICHARD ROSS, WWW.JUVENILE-IN-JUSTICE.COM
  • Richard Ross, www.juvenile-in-justice.com
  • According to the American Correctional Association, the average cost to incarcerate a juvenile for a 9-12 month period is between $66,000 and $88,000.

"I talk to young kids who have been prosecuted as adults, and a lot of those kids consider their lives washed -- just done," he said.

Ross said one hope for the "Juvenile in Justice" project is to spur movements and awareness of specific situations for each location. He said anyone can make a difference if they have the right resources.

"I basically work with any nonprofit that is trying to get a better outcome for the kids," he said. "When I say help them, they ask me for images and I go through libraries and help them get resources, and I try to act as a nexus to give people the right information and vocabulary to help [children and families] socially, legally, anything ... there are ways they can change the situations, and one person can do an awful lot to reframe the conversation and change an attitude."

Ross hopes his exhibit, soon to be in Indy, will be one of those ways.

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