Legislative debate highlights issues surrounding juvenile offenders

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A proposed change to Indiana’s juvenile law has state legislators wrestling with the question of when children should be treated like adults.

Current statute allows for minors as young as 10 years old to be waived to adult court, but provisions in House Bill 1304 would bump up the ages of eligibility for wavier by two years.

Members of the House of Representatives voted 94-0 to move the bill to the Senate. However, when it was presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 4, an amendment had been proposed that retained the original waiver-eligible ages, but no vote was taken at that hearing.

Advocates in the juvenile justice system offered conflicting testimony during the committee hearing, underscoring legislators are not the only ones grappling with the issue of when adult-level punishment should be used on juveniles.

After the hearing, Jill Johnson, juvenile division chief at the Marion County Public Defender Agency, characterized the teen years as a critical time. Adolescents engaged in risky behavior who make poor decisions may not get the help they need in a facility for adult offenders.

“We don’t have a good system to provide support or rehabilitative services for children in the adult system,” she explained. “Ultimately, we have children who end up with adult records and start out their adulthood with a very significant impediment of a criminal conviction.”

Conversely, Dustin Houchin, chairman of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council board, maintained adult court is needed as a remedy for those juveniles who have committed serious offenses.

While acknowledging the concern over adjudicating young offenders as adults, Houchin said he was comfortable with the level of discretion and oversight afforded to prosecutors and judges in the current system.

“We understand the weight of the situation,” Houchin said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”

The Washington County prosecutor did not attend the hearing but is familiar with the proposed legislation.

HB 1304 was presented to the judiciary committee by author Rep. Jud McMillin. The Brookville Republican described the measure as containing a “whole bunch of stuff” that was recommended by last summer’s Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code. At 70 pages, the proposal covers a range of criminal issues from juvenile matters to substance and mental health treatment for adult offenders.

How old?

The bill calls for raising the waiver ages in three different circumstances. For children charged with murder, the waiver age would increase from 10 to 12. The age for waiving teens charged with a felony that is heinous or aggravated, or is part of a repetitive act would be upped from 14 to 16. Finally, the age of presumptive waiver to adult court would move from 16 to 17 for youths who are charged with a Level 1 through 4 felony or with involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide.

An amendment offered by Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, would delete that entire section of HB 1304 and keep the waiver ages as they presently are.

Henry Circuit Judge Mary Willis spoke to the committee as a representative of the Indiana Judges Association and Indiana Association of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

The associations are not opposed to raising the age of adult adjudication for the youngest offenders but would like the other age levels to remain unchanged, Willis said. Ages for the younger juveniles should be bumped up because elementary school-aged children who commit crimes are a different type of offender than the teenaged juveniles.

Ranking committee member Sen. R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, was skeptical of increasing the state’s waiver age. He said a victim can be just as dead whether killed by a 10-year-old or by a 12-year-old.

Willis responded that usually young children who commit adult crimes have mental health issues.

Several individuals representing mental health organizations and child advocacy groups testified in support of HB 1304. Also, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indiana Public Defender Council as well as the Indiana State Bar Association’s Civil Rights of Children Committee all favor the bill.

Still, provisions in proposed legislation brought some concerns. The section regarding the shackling of juveniles highlighted some divisions between the supporters of the bill.

Again, Steele’s amendment made a key change to the original proposal. He has offered language that would permit a judge to order a minor, who is disruptive in court, to be restrained without getting input from the sheriff or transportation officer.

Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, did not agree with allowing courts to make such decisions despite a sheriff’s recommendation. Steele pointed to the conditional language in the bill and asked why, if the defendant is acting out in the courtroom, a judge should have to get a recommendation.

Taylor held that more consideration should be given to shackling juveniles. “If we get to the point where we’re scared of kids, we’ve got a problem,” he said.

In Washington County, juveniles transported to court from a detention center are typically shackled with ankle chains, belly chains and handcuffs, Houchin said. Juveniles who are brought by their parents or who come from a treatment facility are not shackled so, he said, only an “extreme minority” of youthful offenders are restrained in the courtroom.

The prosecutor framed the shackling in terms of safety. Restraints can keep the juvenile from causing trouble during the proceeding or from fleeing the courtroom, Houchin said.

Dan Schroeder, attorney with the Marion County Public Defender Agency, said Washington County’s practice was common in a number of Indiana counties. The original language in HB 1304 which limits shackling unless the court has a reason is appropriate, he said, because appearing in chains at the courthouse can have consequences.

“It can influence a judge’s perception of a child. It influences the perception of other people in the court with the child. The parents are hurt by seeing their child (in restraints) and the child is stigmatized,” Schroeder said.

Another section of HB 1304 would repeal the current law that allows runaways and truants to be detained in either the Indiana Department of Correction or a juvenile detention center.

Part of the impetus for the repeal is a reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Detention Prevention Act which no longer permits states to keep status offenders in secured facilities, according to Laurie Elliott, executive director of Youth Law T.E.A.M. of Indiana. To continue to receive funding from the federal JJDPA, Indiana will have to change its law.

Houchin’s community usually puts runaways and truants in unsecured facilities but, he said, in some instances, these juveniles do need to be held in secured centers. Having the option of a safer place for offenders who continue to be a risk to themselves is necessary, he said.

Elliott said in her experience most status offenders do not pose a public safety concern.

“I think that the more that we can keep kids locally in the community and provide treatment, the more successful ultimately they’re going to be,” she said. “Once (these status offenders) touch the system, the further they go into it, the worse the outcome.”•

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