INDIANAPOLIS — Marion County prosecutor Ryan Mears has styled himself as a more progressive leader, ever since he assumed the post after then-Prosecutor Terry Curry stepped down for health reasons in 2019.
Soon after taking control, Mears grabbed headlines by announcing the office would no longer prosecute people arrested for carrying small amounts of marijuana. This year, shortly before Indiana lawmakers gathered in Indianapolis to hammer out a statewide ban on abortions, Mears announced Marion County, home of the state capitol, would not prosecute anyone who violates that ban.
Marion County saw a record-setting 282 homicides last year. Mears responds to critics blaming him for the rise by saying efforts like the marijuana-decriminalization policy have freed his office to focus on prosecuting violent criminals.
Mears, Democrat, is running for re-election on Nov. 8, but this is the first time he faces voters in a general election. He won the seat on a vote by a Democratic caucus made up of party committee members.
Mears, 42, joined the Marion County Prosecutor's Office soon after he graduated law school. He cut his teeth prosecuting misdemeanor cases before being promoted to handle homicides and other major felonies. Long before he was tapped to lead the office, Mears said he was disturbed by inequities in the justice system.
"There are inequities that exist in the criminal justice system and you think to yourself, 'Well, hey, if I ever got a chance to be in a leadership position, what can I do to try to make our system more fair?'" Mears said. "And that's what we've tried to do with the prosecutor's office."
Mears' progressive-leaning policies have put him at odds with with more conservative critics including the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police, whose members recently voted overwhelmingly that they have no confidence in the prosecutor's office or the county court system.
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Below are six questions and answers with the current Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears.
Question: Marion County has experienced several straight years of record homicides. What’s driving this violence? What can we do to stop it?
Mears: "Well, right now we see this terrible cycle of retaliatory violence because we have too many people in our community who have basically opted out of the criminal justice system. They don't trust law enforcement, so they don't tell law enforcement what happened.
"We have to help bridge that gap so we can end that terrible cycle of retaliatory violence. There is not a non-fatal shooting or a homicide that has occurred in Marion County where someone, somewhere doesn't know what happened. It's just a matter of getting those individuals to come forward.
"And that's why I think it's so important that we as a prosecutor's office can go into communities and say, 'These are the things that we can do right here right now to help. We're not trying to jam you up on civil possession of marijuana cases. We want to make sure we're focusing on violent crime. We want to make sure that we're helping you out with their child-support obligation. We want to make sure that we're helping you get your driver's license reinstated, so you can drive to and from work. We want to make sure that we're helping you get into housing.'
"Those are the types of programs that build trust in our community and pay dividends down the road."
Q: Critics have cited cases where defendants have been released on bond only to commit other violent acts as evidence of problems in the county’s justice system. What, if anything, do you believe should be changed about the way Marion County judges decide who should be freed on bail?
Mears: "Marion County judges, you know, ultimately, it's their decision in terms of to decide what type of bail to impose or not to impose. We have a bill matrix that's out there that's publicly available that everybody can take a look at that was last revised in 2017... Let's have another conversation about what that matrix looks like moving forward. I think there are some revisions that we can make that I think are common sense.
"No one should be in jail because they can't afford to post $100 bail. That's not what our system is about. Conversely, we need to make sure that the people who are committing violent crimes, the ones who are accused of committing violent crimes, that those individuals are incarcerated and their bail reflects the seriousness of the charges that they've committed.
"There's only so many jail beds available. I think we all agree murderers, rapists, child molesters, those individuals need to be in jail. ... I think all of us agree that violent offenses and the people who are accused of sexual crimes, those are the individuals who we want to stay in custody, I think it's those lower-level offenses where maybe we can do a better job."
Q: The FedEx shooting raised questions about how the prosecutor’s office uses Indiana’s Jake Laird/Red Flag law. What should the public understand about this law?
Mears: "Well, I think the most important thing is that law what it does is it allows law enforcement to take a firearm away from somebody and take a gun under those particular circumstances. That's all it does. If you look at the Jake Laird law, it says nothing about purchasing guns. ... The only thing it talks about is it gives law enforcement the ability to take those firearms. What we have seen unfortunately here in Marion County, we have had individuals who have had red flag determinations, and yet we later find them in possession of a firearm. And it goes to that weakness that we have in our system is there's no private regulation of gun sales.
"We need to make sure that we're offering a meaningful resources to address our mental health issues as opposed to just labeling people. That's where we need to go. However, if we come into contact with someone that we're seeing as a mental health issue, what can we do to get that person into resources to help them with their mental health issues as opposed to just labeling them?"
Q: Can your office do anything about that?
Mears: "I think that it has to be a collective solution.... It involves the judiciary. It involves the legislature. I think what we have seen consistently is we have a real problem with mental health issues in our criminal justice system. Mental health issues can be addressed and treated, but you have to be willing to put in the resources. You have to give the prosecutors, you have to give the judges the tools to address mental health challenges that might exist. But those resources have to be made available. And so it really just comes down to an issue of priority and resources from the Indiana legislature."
Q: Every employer these days is having problems filling open positions, and the prosecutor’s office is certainly no exception. What needs to be done to recruit and retain deputy prosecutors?
Mears: "Well, the first thing that happened is the counsel helped us out tremendously. Our starting salary for new attorneys a year ago was $53,000. That was not a competitive wage. And so we were able to raise that to $60,000. ... So we're getting more financial resources to offer more competitive packages.
"Marion County is not an easy place to work. The level of scrutiny that you face to face in Marion County is way different than you face in any other jurisdiction. You definitely deal with more challenges in terms of the level of cooperation that you see from witnesses and victims on cases. And so in many respects, it's a more difficult job. That means that what we are selling to people is you get a chance to work with the best trial attorneys in the state of Indiana. ... So you get to learn from the best... We're very much the big leagues.
"Some of the policies that we've taken are particularly attractive to young professionals. Young Professionals appreciate the fact that we say we're not going to waste your time or our time on simple possession of marijuana. That appeals to really smart people who want to work in public service. ... We're not asking our prosecutors to waste their time on things that don't impact that bottom line of public safety."
Q: How can the prosecutor’s office keep guns out of the hands of violent felons and other people who should not have them?
Mears: "Well, I think one of it is advocating at the Statehouse level. I already mentioned this, but the private gun sales is a real problem. I think the second part of it is we are seeing more and more young people getting access to firearms. ... (It) used to be you kind of had to know somebody. Now you just have to get on Instagram or Facebook and someone in your feed is likely selling a firearm. As a consequence, we're seeing the wrong people get their hands on firearms much earlier in their life.
"So I think one of the things that we can do from a law enforcement perspective is we need to continue to crack down on these internet sales. We need to be very aggressive in terms of if we see those firearms for sale. ... We also have to do a better job of advocating at the Statehouse that permit-less carry is not popular in Marion County for a variety of reasons. And it really hamstrings law enforcement's ability to enforce what gun laws are there. It used to be a very simple choice for law enforcement, do you have a permit or not? Now they have to look at 20 different things to try to figure out if someone's able to actually possess that firearm and oftentimes they don't have access to that information from where they're standing.
"So we need to continue to go to the legislature and say permit-less carry is not working for Marion County. This is why it's not working. And see if we can get a law that more accurately reflects the challenges that we face here. Giving everybody a gun doesn't make our community safer."
Q: Youth crime is a constant problem. We’ve seen two high-profile cases recently of 13-year-olds charged with murder. What’s driving juvenile crime and how can the prosecutor’s office address the problems?
Mears: "You have too many young people who have access to guns and they're easily available over the internet. And as a consequence, you have people who have little or no impulse control with firearms... That's part of the challenge. I think the other part is what we're seeing is these are kids that oftentimes have severe mental health issues. And in one of the cases that I'm thinking of the kid had literally just been released from a mental health facility and then days later, he ends up in a homicide and so I think it goes back to that level of treatment and care that we're providing to young people.
"We have to invest in (providing) those mental health services to people at a younger and younger age. And I think our intervention point has to continue to be younger. You know, when we used to have conversations about violence, we're kind of focusing on high school kids. That's not true anymore. We've lowered that age group pretty significantly, because we want to be having conversations with those fifth and sixth graders, because we know unfortunately, violence could be just around the corner with those kids. So we work really hard to help give kids the ability to resolve conflicts without having to use a gun."
Watch the full interview with Ryan Mears below.
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at email@example.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.