Key to Growth

Angela Morris is driving progress in Johnson County criminal justice system

By Glenda Winders // Photography by Angela Jackson

As a student at Indiana University, Angela Morris planned to become a nurse. The problem was that she couldn’t seem to get up in time for her 8 a.m. anatomy class, so she changed her major to criminal justice and has never regretted it. After completing an internship with the juvenile court in Johnson County, where she had grown up, she knew that being a probation officer was what she wanted to do.

She joined Johnson County Juvenile Probation as a juvenile probation officer in 2004 and later got her Master’s degree from Indiana Wesleyan University in public administration. She was appointed as chief probation officer in 2019, which meant that she was in charge of both children and adults.

Then in February of this year, the Adult Community Corrections department also came under her purview. This program for low-risk offenders has a work-release center where people can live, go to work and then come back to the facility. It also oversees home detention, where the person being detained wears an electronic monitoring bracelet. In March the department had an organizational structure change and was renamed Johnson County Court Services.

Joined for justice

“I love my job, and I love this county,” Morris said. “Everybody in our system has the same goal. We work with the same offenders, and all of us — the sheriff, the jail, the prosecuting attorney’s office, the judges and probation — want them to be successful citizens.

The probation office is an arm of the courts entrusted to follow judges’ orders and guidelines and work with people to make sure they are getting into the right programs using evidence-based practices and services. The Indiana Supreme Court governs all of the probation offices in the state, giving them guidance on practices, risks and needs assessments, and the evaluations they administer to make sure local organizations are doing all they can to help people be the most successful.

Currently Morris oversees 75 staff members, 2,000 adult probationers, 150 juveniles, 150 home-detention participants and work-release participants in a 100-bed center. She has a separate office for each of the three arms of her responsibility, and Monday mornings find her deciding where she’ll put her attention for the week.

“Right now we are focusing on community corrections and trying to build it into the same respected department that probation is,” Morris says. “And it’s working. The staff has been great.”

Her days also include catching up with Steve Kermode, the deputy director; meeting with the assistant chief probation officers at each location; and visiting the community corrections center to see how the night went.

In 2019, the same year she was named chief probation officer, several new people entered the law enforcement group — a new circuit court judge, new sheriff and new prosecutor.

“We all get along so well that it has been easy to sit down and talk and map out where we want our system to go,” Morris said. “We may not always agree, but at the end of the day our goal is the same.”

In fact, Johnson County has long been a leader in progressive law enforcement.

“Johnson County has been and will continue to be on the cutting edge of law-enforcement excellence,” says Johnson County Sheriff Duane Burgess, “and Angela is instrumental in those efforts. She has brought new ideas to the table that we are now utilizing, and she has made life better for a lot of folks. She’s a key person. Whether it is crisis intervention, community corrections or probation, she has excelled.”

Tackling trauma

One of the initiatives in which Morris is keenly interested is being trauma-informed and using trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) to help offenders whose trauma may even have started before birth.

“When I first started, the answer to the question of why people were committing crimes was drugs and alcohol, and the solution was putting them in jail for longer times,” Morris says. “The last two decades we’ve thought it was mental health, but now studies have shown that trauma is the driver for crime, mental-health issues and substance abuse.”

She said most people have had some sort of trauma in their lives but not necessarily a fire, natural disaster or abuse. It can be a traumatic birth or that somehow a person’s needs weren’t met as a child. When trauma happens to children, they become adults with trauma.

She calls Lori Meyers, the department’s program director, “a programming genius” for creating the training programs in this area for juvenile probation officers and school officials. In the beginning only a few people attended, but they went away telling others that the concept was something to at least consider.

She and Meyers have since been asked to make a presentation about their program at the state level, and recently they hosted chief probation officers from Marion, Hamilton, Hendricks, Wayne and Monroe counties who wanted to hear what they had to say.

Their approach involves therapy and programming that’s tailored to address trauma. It begins with concepts as simple as regulating people — meeting basic human needs by giving them a cup of water or a snack so that it is easier for them to focus on the meeting they’re going to have or the program they’re getting ready to go through.

“These people have been let down so many times in their lives already,” she said. “It’s hard for them to trust other people, so it’s most important to us that our staff model what we want them to do. I don’t care what the crime or allegation is, we treat that person like we’d treat a family member or close friend, and it goes a long way. I want them to feel comfortable with us and trust us and know that if our system says we’re going to do something, we’re going to do our best.”

Building bridges

By statute, every county in the state must have a local Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council (JRAC), and the people who have to sit on it are a criminal judge, a sheriff, a prosecutor, defense attorney, a commissioner and a councilman. Morris says that because she and her colleagues work so well together it was no problem to get them all to sit on the council to ensure that the system is evolving in the same way.

“Everybody still has control over their own departments,” she says, “but at the end of the day the system is moving in the same direction, and right now that direction is trauma-informed care. Our hope is that if law enforcement officers are trauma-informed, then people in the system will be treated equally.”            Johnson County’s newest judge, Brandi Kirkendall, appreciates the work Morris is doing.

“Angela’s collaborative efforts in our system are outstanding,” she says. “She has bridged gaps in various departments by way of her leadership skills. She whole-heartedly commits herself and her time to our community and to her work. We are lucky to have her in the criminal justice system.”

Another part of the probation effort that Morris values is the problem-solving courts — drug court, re-entry court and behavioral health court — where professionals from the respective treatment teams evaluate probationers to see if they are appropriate for the program and to determine what is driving their criminal behavior.

“These are trending across the county,” she says, “and we have experienced quite a bit of change by implementing them.”

Farm family

In 2005, not long after Morris had begun working as a probation officer, she married her husband, Craig, to whom she had been introduced by mutual friends. Her mother was delighted, she recalls, because he was a farmer who owned land locally, so she wouldn’t be moving away. The couple built a house on his grandparents’ homestead and still live there today with their children, son Will, 15, and daughter Avery, 12. Both children raise show pigs and are involved in 4-H, as their dad had been growing up.

“I was not in 4-H growing up,” Morris says, “but 4-H was so important to him and his family, so we have instilled the same love for that in our children.”

Since the rest of her family was involved in the Johnson County Fair, she joined the fair board nine years ago to be a part of things.

“If you can’t beat them, you join them,” she says, laughing.

The Morrises enjoy doing all they can as a family. Many weekends of the year they are traveling to livestock shows, and they enjoy high school sporting events. They have season tickets to the Colts games and are also Indy 500 fans. They travel to Disney World every couple of years.

But most days Morris can be found at one of her offices, working hard to make life better for everyone involved in the law enforcement system.

“Not every day is perfect,” she says, “but the relationships that have been formed are ones of mutual respect and friendship. I love coming to work every day. The people I work with, the employees and the community partners we have make it fun.”