House passes juvenile justice bill on strong bipartisan vote

Described as a “model of the nation,” an Indiana juvenile justice reform bill passed the Indiana House of Representatives with Democrats and Republicans all voting in support of the measure.

Senate Bill 368 is a historic bill in the realm of juvenile law,” Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, told her colleagues in the lower chamber. “It will have a huge impact on the way we treat juveniles in our justice system.”

The bill sailed through the House on an 87-0 vote Thursday after earlier last week language clarifying the Indiana Department of Child Services’ role in determining the competency of a minor was amended into the measure. Now the legislation returns to the Senate where it previously passed in late February also with strong bipartisan support in a 46-to-1 vote.

McNamara, along with Republic Rep. Greg Steuerwald, Avon, and Democratic Reps. Matt Pierce, Bloomington, and Ragen Hatcher, Gary, sponsored the bill in the House. Sens. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, authored the bill. Sens. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, and Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, signed as co-authors.

Advocates for juveniles were elated after the House vote last week.

“Senate Bill 368 is huge achievement for children,” said JauNae Hanger, president of the Children Policy and Law Initiative, which has long advanced children’s issues in the Legislature. “It will remove some of the overly harsh and punitive aspects of Indiana law.”

In introducing the legislation on the House floor for third reading, McNamara reiterated, the bill is historic and “something I’ve been told repeatedly is going to be a model for the nation.”

The bill addresses four areas of juvenile justice law.

McNamara said the “biggest portion and most important portion” of SB 368 was the section on juvenile competency. If the bill becomes law, Indiana will be among the few states with a process for determining when a minor charged with a crime is competent to stand trial.

The provision allows for the court to order the child to undergo an evaluation. However, no statement the youngster makes during the evaluation or hearing conducted regarding competency may be used against the child in any other proceeding.

If the juvenile is found not to be competent, the court may order the minor to participate in services in the least restrictive setting until competency is attained. If the child cannot attain competency, the court can order a civil commitment.

Another significant section of the bill will prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from being held in an adult facility while awaiting trial or sentencing. Also, the measure bars juveniles from being detained in a facility where adults can be seen and heard.

Courts will have discretion to house a juvenile arrestee in an adult jail if doing so “is in the best interests of justice.”

According to a fiscal analysis of the SB 368 by the Legislative Services Agency, the provision banning juvenile arrestees from being within “sight or sound” of adult inmates will impact the state’s coffers.

With the new language, Indiana will continue to qualify for about $1 million annually in federal funding under Title II of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The fiscal analysis noted losing that money would eliminate the three state staff positions of juvenile justice specialist, compliance monitor and racial ethnic disparities coordinator.

Also as part of the bill, juveniles will have their records automatically expunged unless they have been adjudicated for an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult. In addition, the record cannot be expunged for juveniles adjudicated for violating state laws that prohibit the carrying of an unlicensed handgun or the possession of a firearm by minors.

Finally, the legislation provides that all youngsters identified as a dual status child — being adjudicated as both a child in need of services and a delinquent child — shall be referred to the dual status assessment team.

“Removing children from adult jails while awaiting trial in adult court, ensuring competency of children to stand trial in the juvenile justice system, and providing fresh starts to young people who make mistakes as a child — are much needed changes in Indiana,” Hanger said. “We are grateful for the widespread, bipartisan support that is responsible for the bill’s success so far.”

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