We often think of our local juvenile courts as places where bad kids are sent to be punished for breaking the law.

Lake Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak Jr. is breaking free from that stereotype, instead encouraging juvenile justice personnel to think of the offenders as their own children, redirecting them from the wrong pathways.

It's showing in the Lake Juvenile Court numbers

Lake County has reduced the number of children in juvenile detention by more than 70 percent since 2010.

The number of children admitted into Lake County juvenile detention decreased from 1,916 in 2010 to 611 in 2018, according to county records.

The average daily population has declined in that time period as well — from 70 in 2010 to 28 in 2018.

A big part of this is attributed to Stefaniak's leadership.

It's not necessarily because fewer children are making mistakes. There is just a more innovative approach to dealing with those missteps.

The judge has set a goal of helping 50 juvenile offenders obtain jobs by 2025.

Probation officers now ask juvenile offenders to complete job interest surveys and have worked to build partnerships with potential employers for the youth.

And a culture thrives in which ankle monitoring, rather than lockup, is used in appropriate cases.

The judge also stresses a culture in his courtroom — and throughout the juvenile center — that kids aren't just there to face punishment.

During a recent visit to the juvenile detention center, a Times editor witnessed an interaction between Judge Stefaniak and a juvenile offender, who was mopping floors in a common area used by youth inmates.

The judge took the opportunity to discuss the young man's upcoming court hearing and to discuss what life could look like if the creative talents he used to steal could be put to a more productive end.

The youth told the judge he felt his chances were "better than average" that he would be getting out of the detention center soon.

But the judge reminded him all of it meant nothing if the young man didn't change the behavior that landed him in detention to begin with.

The interaction was laced with both a degree of authority and sort of parental compassion. It appeared the judge had the respect of the offender.

Juvenile offenders need to be redirected into more productive pathways in life — to be shown how to become responsible adults — if a cycle of incarceration is to be broken before adulthood.

It's easy to look around Northwest Indiana and only see the glaring problems plaguing so many of our children.

But hiding in plain sight are countless examples of people who care enough to work for solutions.

We all should thank Judge Stefaniak and his staff for seeing the value in real, measurable action for the future of our children.
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