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Bill in response to Noblesville school shooting stalls amid concerns

March 26, 2019

A bill that would lower to 12 the age a juvenile charged with attempted murder could be tried as an adult has stalled in a House committee and does not have strong support from the chair, who is also a sponsor of the measure.

The bill, Senate Bill 279, was authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, after the May 2018 shooting at Noblesville West Middle School that severely injured a student and teacher. SB 279 would expand Indiana’s waiver law and allow the state to waive children as young as 12 years old to adult court on charges of attempted murder.

After the bill sailed through the upper chamber on a 45-3 vote in January, it was referred to the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code, where it remains.

Committee chair Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, described the bill as creating a “very broad shift in policy” that has drawn a lot of opposition. In particular, state and national juvenile justice organizations have maintained that expanding Indiana’s waiver law would not deter crime and would psychologically harm youthful offenders, putting them at great risk of reoffending.    

“At current, there are a lot of concerns that I have with the bill, so unless somebody comes with some pretty significant changes, I don’t believe I’ll be hearing it,” McNamara said.

Houchin said she has not discussed the bill with McNamara, but she remains dedicated to this issue and will continue to advocate for SB 279.

“This is a bill about justice for victims and their families,” Houchin said in a statement. “It closes a loophole in our existing waiver statute that currently fails to provide the court with the option of invoking a longer sentence and creating a permanent record for juveniles who try to commit murder but just don’t succeed. Our current law already provides for juveniles charged as adults to serve part of their sentences in the juvenile system until they are old enough to transition to adult facilities. This is a bill that promotes justice and public safety, and I hope to see it move forward.”

McNamara did not rule out the possibility of the bill getting a hearing.

“It’s a bill that can actually be fixed, so that’s why I say, give people time to work on it,” McNamara said. “If they can appease some of the concerns that have been brought to my attention, then I might hear the bill, but if those cannot be reconciled, then I will kill the bill.”

Specifically, McNamara would like to see more hurdles inserted so 12- and 17-year-olds are not automatically sent to adult court. She wants more onus placed on the prosecution and the judge’s decision-making process so not that every youth is charged and tried as an adult.

“I think this bill is a direct result or reaction to the Noblesville shooting,” she said. “I don’t think it was done in haste, but I think it wants to try to solve a problem that we need to spend a little bit more time on figuring out so that we don’t catch people in the loop that don’t really need to be there.”

The shooting is still resonating in the Statehouse. Today, the Indiana Senate unanimously passed a resolution authored by Sen. Victoria Spartz, R-Noblesville, that honored the individuals — including first responders and the teacher Jason Seaman who stopped the shooter — for their “heroic actions in protecting the students and staff of Noblesville West Middle School” the day of the shooting.

Local and national juvenile justice groups say SB 279 is not the answer to prevent another school shooting. The Indiana Public Defender Council, Kids’ Voice of Indiana, the Children’s Rights Committee of the Indiana State Bar Association, and the Indiana School of Mental Health Initiative at Indiana University opposed the bill, as did the National Juvenile Justice Network, Campaign for Youth Justice and the National Juvenile Defender Center.

The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana spoke out early against SB 279 and agreed with McNamara that the bill represents a broad policy shift and raises many concerns.

“Trying and sentencing young children in the adult system is not an age- or developmentally appropriate, or just, response to youth in trouble with the law,” said JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. “This proposed major public policy change would be a backward step for Indiana, that is otherwise moving forward with significant reforms that are evidence-based through the national best practice Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.”

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