If Stephen Sims’ only legacy in the Allen County judicial system were building a state-of-the art juvenile facility, he would be worthy of admiration.
The Allen County Juvenile Center, often referred to in the legal community as the ACJC, has led to lasting improvements in juvenile justice that go beyond detaining children in a place far more livable and safer than the depressingly outdated and inadequate building it replaced.
But Sims has done much more. In his career as an Allen County Superior Court judge and, before that, as Allen County prosecutor, Sims left his mark in several significant ways. Consider:
As prosecutor, he introduced DNA evidence in a trial for the first time in Indiana.
As judge, he found a way to help intervene – but not intrude – in the lives of some of the county’s most vulnerable citizens, its babies.
He worked with the county’s school systems to develop a sophisticated system for educating juvenile offenders.
Drawing both criticism and praise, he used laws targeting organized crime to close down adult bookstores in the city, leading to court decisions that defined – at least in the 1980s – local standards that separated legal pornography from illegal obscenity.
He developed a common-sense deferred prosecution program that allows for eventually dismissing charges against eligible people while establishing an ongoing revenue stream that saves taxpayers money.
Still, his most visible legacy is the juvenile center.
The ACJC is much more than a building, and Sims is more than a juvenile court judge. In some ways, it’s a small city, and Sims is a health care provider, a school superintendent, a city planner and a mayor.
After his 1996 election, Sims sought to build political support to replace the decrepit Sol Wood center, where juveniles were held. Much could be said about its numerous deficiencies, but this single example says it all: The girls’ wing was an old truck trailer.
But Sims was continually rebuffed by the county commissioners. One commissioner refused to build on the same Wells Street property as the Wood center. Some others wanted to get by on the cheap, not understanding that the center needed to be more than just a scaled-down jail for kids and that Sims’ vision of the center’s form had great implications for the center’s functions. Finally, in 2001, Sims enlisted the support of his fellow judges and issued an order mandating the $28.5 million center be built.
One of the first noticeable accomplishments: By moving his courtroom from the Courthouse to the ACJC, the county no longer needed to transport 4,000 children a year between the Wells Street center and downtown, saving money and increasing public safety.
Upon entering the center, juveniles undergo a thorough diagnostic evaluation that uncovers not only family and criminal history but whether the teen has substance abuse issues or violence at home, for example. Within two hours, 40 percent of the juveniles are released from the center, often to the custody of parents.
All four public school systems provide education at the center, much of it targeted to individual students. Unlike administrators in public schools, Sims can order parents to become more involved in their children’s education. Many of the students there are not housed at the center but are under the court’s supervision.
A lot of the kids who attend don’t want to leave, Sims said.
Many residents likely understand that as a judge in the Family Court Division, Sims determines whether a juvenile is delinquent and, if so, the proper form of rehabilitation.
What many don’t know is that Sims also presides over a paternity court, determining who is obligated as a father and also setting custody and visitation rules.
Prosecutors file most of the paternity cases as part of the federal Title IV-D program, which strives to identify fathers who should pay child support, lessening a mother’s need for welfare. Sims discovered that many of the parents are juveniles themselves, and their children are often born into circumstances that can later breed abuse or neglect.
By law, prosecutors cannot even make recommendations regarding custody or visitation – life-changing matters of vital importance for the baby’s future.
Sims saw the process as an opportunity lost. So Sims now appoints a lawyer to serve as guardian of the children’s interests with the power to investigate the child’s circumstances.
As a result of that lawyer’s investigation, Sims might, for example, grant custody to a grandparent or aunt, or perhaps determine that a father offers a better environment for the child than the mother.
As a result, children who otherwise may need court help years later are better cared for at an early age. There are a lot of things that don’t happen because they have had a guardian, Sims said.
One major milestone of Sims’ career followed the slaying of community activist Sharon Lapp in 1985. The police investigation was less than stellar and contributed to the downfall of some city officials.
With a somewhat shaky case, Prosecutor Sims turned to something no Indiana prosecutor – and prosecutors in only seven other states – had used before at trial: DNA evidence. While such evidence is routine now, it was something of a mystery when Frank Hopkins was tried for murder in 1989, and defense attorneys attempted to use jurors’ unfamiliarity with the scientific process to discredit it.
But the jury was persuaded, Hopkins was convicted, and Sims, in his words, had the privilege of discussing evidence with world-class geneticists.
And, he notes, DNA is not just used as empirical evidence to convict criminals but also to prove the innocence of others.
Sims, elected to the prosecutor’s office as a Republican, reacted to protests at city adult bookstores with aggressive action against the retailers.
Undercover officers bought material at the stores, and Sims charged the sellers with distributing obscene material. After gaining multiple convictions, he went after them under Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations laws – the RICO statutes, originally aimed at organized crime.
Ultimately, Sims fulfilled a lawyer’s dream – appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue the case and scoring a partial victory. The court approved of a prosecutor’s authority to file charges related to obscene material – which is not protected by the First Amendment – but also reinforced the First Amendment rights of book sellers by making clear authorities cannot confiscate material that had never been judged obscene.
Sims was criticized in some quarters for using valuable police and court resources to prosecute non-violent offenses, but he defends the decision to enforce the law as it was passed by the state legislature.
Soon after taking office as prosecutor in 1983, Sims found a way to achieve justice while helping taxpayers. He began a pretrial diversion program for people who had committed domestic violence, working with John Beams of the Center for Non-violence to offer counseling. If participants did not re-offend, charges were later dropped, while the fees they paid helped pay for prosecutor’s office expenses.
The deferral program expanded to include other crimes and even traffic offenses, and the fees are a steady source of income to the county – $1.7 million in 2012.
Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy.
So reads the sign in Sims’ office that once adorned the Meyers & McCarthy store, handed down from his father-in-law, Gilbert Meyers. And in a variety of settings, Sims is nothing if not polite and courteous. That’s how he treats his staff, and it’s a trait many of the juveniles housed in the center demonstrate.
Still, it’s worth noting that Sims does not have a gavel in his courtroom. He doesn’t need one, because there is no question who is in charge.
Sims, who turns 67 later this year, is something of a workaholic, and his friends were not exactly shocked when at age 49 he required five heart bypasses. His wife, Linda, retired from Wells Fargo last year, and the couple have four grandchildren. I have the ability to travel to see the grandkids and kids, Sims says, then notes with a smile – and expressing the sentiment of numerous people his age – that he mentioned his grandchildren first. But he is also unabashedly proud of his daughters. Jessica is a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, and Rachel is a lawyer in Texas.
Grandchildren are a wonderful time of life.