Juvenile justice bill supported by Indiana advocates advances

A coalition of state and national organizations are putting their support behind a juvenile justice bill in the Indiana Legislature that they say will bring much-needed reform and prevent the state from losing federal money. The measure advanced to the full Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 368, authored by Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, passed the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee on a 6-1 vote Tuesday. The measure offers comprehensive reform but, according to Tallian, the committee will consider only three provisions — pretrial detention of juveniles in adult facilities; determining juvenile competency; and automatic expungement of juvenile records.

JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, on Monday called the bill a “critical piece of legislation for children in the state of Indiana.”

CPLI is part of the broad coalition supporting the bill. Other organizations joining the effort to get SB 368 through the Statehouse include the Indiana Public Defender Council, VOICES, Inc., the Indianapolis Urban League and The Sentencing Project.

“This is really common sense about children,” Hanger said during a virtual conference Monday afternoon about the bill. “It’s age and developmentally appropriate practices for children. It provides protections for children and it actually reforms dangerous, harsh and overly punitive approaches that we’ve been using for years in the state of Indiana.

Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, co-author of SB 368, echoed Tallian and Hanger in noting Monday the bill is a product of concerned members in the legal community, community organizations and child advocates.

“Senate Bill 368 is a comprehensive piece of legislation that attempts to address some of the more egregious aspects of a system that, I feel, is in need of compassionate and equitable reforms,” Breaux said.

Without a statute prohibiting juveniles from being detained in adult facilities while they are awaiting trial, Indiana could suffer a hit to its budget. If the Hoosier state continued to house minors in adult jails, the state will be out of compliance with the 2018 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency prevention Act and could lose $800,000 in federal funding annually.

Indiana law mandates that convicted and sentenced minors be kept in a juvenile facility until they reach the appropriate age to be transferred to an adult prison. However, the state has no such provision for pretrial detention, so juveniles awaiting their trial may be held with adults.

Marcy Mistrett, senior fellow at the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., highlighted the harm teenagers can suffer when they incarcerated with adults. She said juveniles in adult facilities are at greater risk for physical and sexual abuse, are often held in solitary by being locked in a cell by themselves for 23 hours a day, and learn the bad behaviors that make them more likely to recidivate once they are released.

In a juvenile facility, she said, the focus is on rehabilitation and the staff-to-offender ratio is lower so the teenagers are supervised.

SB 368 is coming just as the city of Indianapolis experienced a mass murder in which a juvenile has been charged. The Marion County prosecutor has charged 17-year-old Raymond Childs III as an adult in the shooting deaths of six individuals, including an unborn child at a home on Adams Street. Another juvenile was also shot and survived by is severely injured.

Childs has been charged with six counts of murder, attempted murder and carrying a handgun without a license.

Mistrett cautioned against legislating to address an outlier case. She said the approach to violence by juveniles has been only punishment and a tough-on-crime attitude, which has resulted in terrible outcomes.

She noted juveniles detained in juvenile facilities are kept in secured and locked buildings. The minors are being held accountable but the accountability is appropriate to their age.

Also, the juvenile competency plugs what Tallian said is a hole in the Indiana statute. Currently state law only includes provisions for addressing the competency of adults to aid in their defense and the Indiana Supreme Court has held the adult provision cannot be applied to juveniles.

Elkhart Juvenile Magistrate Judge Deborah Domine is a member of the Indiana Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which is supporting SB 368. She said the statute’s silence on how to determine competency for minors is creating trouble for the juvenile judges because they have no clear guidance.

Domine pointed to a 2015 case in Elkhart where a 12-year-old was charged with murder. Everyone involved in the case agreed the juvenile was not competent, but the statute provided no guidance.

The minor had to be sent out of state for treatment after 14 facilities denied placement. Ultimately, the juvenile was able to stand trial three years later.

Domine said state law needs to be enacted that offers clear definitions and provides pathways for determining a juvenile’s competency and restoring that competency.

“It is clear that reforms are needed,” Hanger said. “We must make changes in our laws and public policies to embrace developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive practices for children.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to report Senate Bill 368 passing the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee.

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