Juvenile justice bill headed to Indiana House floor

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The juvenile justice bill that national organizations say Indiana needs to ensure its children can move past the “poor decisions made during their childhood” is scheduled to arrive Tuesday on the Indiana House floor after two committees in the lower chamber voted unanimously in support of the measure.

Senate Bill 368, authored by Sens. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, cleared the House Ways and Means Committee March 31 and the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee without a vote in opposition. Bipartisan support pushed the bill through the Senate with Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, casting the lone “nay” vote.

The legislation has been whittled down from its original version, but it still makes what supporters call three necessary changes to Indiana’s juvenile laws.

Under the bill, juveniles under age 18 could not be held pretrial in an adult facility, and juveniles would have their records automatically expunged of most misdemeanor findings either when they turn 19 or one year after being discharged. Also, the measure establishes a procedure for determining a juvenile’s competency to stand trial.

In a letter supporting SB 368, The Sentencing Project along with nine other national organizations focused on children and the justice system said the changes in the bill will ensure the safety of both children and the public.

“The provisions in this bill are evidence-based, align with changes in federal law, and represent critical steps in ensuring that Indiana’s children remain safe while involved in the justice system and have a fair chance to move on from poor decisions made during their childhood,” the organizations wrote.

The competency provision, in particular, sent SB 368 to the Ways and Means Committee. According to committee chair Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, the program to train professionals on how to evaluate a youngster’s competency will be an extra expenditure for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Also, the Ways and Means Committee passed an amendment by consent that was offered by Rep. Wendy McNamara, who is a sponsor of the bill in the House. The Evansville Republican explained the amendment added language for a civil commitment proceeding if the juvenile does not gain competency.

“We wanted to make sure that the attempts to get a juvenile to be competent didn’t go into perpetuity,” McNamara said. “We wanted that to have an ending point at some point so it will go back to the court to determine if this individual is never going to be competent and go from there.”

Testifying before both House committee, Joel Wieneke, senior staff attorney at the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the state has not had an adequate juvenile competency provision in place since the Indiana Supreme Court addressed the issue 17 years ago. In In re K.G., 808 N.E2d 631 (Ind. 2004), the court ruled that Indiana juveniles have the right to be found competent before a criminal proceeding.

This legislation is needed, Wienke said, because currently youngsters who are not competent are being pushed through the system.

Senior Judge Nancy Gettinger, speaking on behalf of the Indiana Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges, echoed the need for the Indiana Code to have a process for evaluating juvenile competency. She said the lack of a clear procedure has led to inconsistent practices across the state because judges do not know what the rules are.

“If you’ve been around a judge for too long, you know we really like rules,” Gettinger said. “We like to have them be very clear.”

The Indiana State Bar Association Children’s Rights Committee also highlighted that Indiana is one of only five states in the country that does not have competency requirements for juveniles. This has led to “uncertainty and confusion among lawyers and judges” and “inconsistent results” for children.

In a letter supporting SB 368, committee chair Nicole Goodson wrote, “Creating Indiana’s first statutory standard for juvenile competency to stand trial would help align our state’s juvenile court practices with the juvenile system’s original purpose: rehabilitation.”

Democratic representatives on the Ways and Means Committee applauded SB 368.

“It’s long overdue,” said Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, noting Indiana has worked for several years on reforming adult courts but has not made any significant changes to the treatment of juveniles. “Thank you all very much for bringing this much-needed piece legislation to bring some fairness to our juvenile justice system.”

Rep. John Young, R-Franklin, had concerns about the automatic expungement provision. During the Ways and Means hearing, he questioned if the requirement would burden courts so that staff, rather than the judges, would be reviewing the expungement files. He proposed leaving in place the provision that the juvenile would have to apply for the expungement but waive the filing fee.

Tallian pointed out the expungement will not apply to juveniles adjudicated for an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult or that involves the possession of a firearm. Also, judges would still have discretion if an automatic expungement would not serve the interest of justice.

Several adults who had been arrested and charged when they were juveniles urged the lawmakers to pass the bill.

Michael Spalding recounted his experience falling into the wrong crowd and learning to pick car locks. He credited support from others with helping him change before he got a criminal record.

“Please pass Senate Bill 368 and let these children know in our state that the people in this room are fighting for them to have a fair shot,” he said. “Let them know that this state sees the value in our children and works to get past their traumas before throwing them in cages and labeling them as unredeemable.”

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