‘Landmark’ juvenile justice bill awaiting governor’s signature

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Indiana’s juvenile justice bill, which will implement key reforms and enable the state to retain federal funding, is headed to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk after the Senate unanimously concurred on the amended legislation earlier this week.

Senate Enrolled Act 368 passed the Senate 48-0 April 14. Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, switched his vote to yes after casting the lone votes against the bill in the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law and when it first arrived on the Senate floor in February.

The bill had been amended before it was passed in the House on an 87-0 vote April 8. New language was added that clarified the role of the Indiana Department of Child Services in competency proceedings for juveniles.

Authored by Sens. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, and Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, the measure had strong support from attorneys, judges, children’s advocates and adults who had been in trouble with the law as youths. Tallian, who called SEA 368 “landmark legislation,” credited the individuals and organizations who came to the Statehouse to explain the nuances of the bill and share their personal experiences with the juvenile justice system.

“In the House and Senate committees, the testimony was extraordinary,” Tallian said. “Thank you to all of the young people and advocates who came to share their stories and talk about the benefits this bill will have. Thanks to all the different groups who worked very hard on this legislation.”

Stand for Children Indiana described the bill as making three key reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system that has been seen as disproportionately impacting children of color and prioritizing incarceration over rehabilitation. The nonprofit also echoed Tallian in praising the advocates who worked to get the measure passed into law.

“We want to thank the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana as well as the Public Defenders Council of Indiana for their tremendous leadership on Senate Bill 368,” said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana. “Without these two organizations, this bill never would have happened.”

SEA 368 addressed many areas of juvenile justice when it was introduced at the start of the 2021 legislative session. However, several provisions were removed as the bill advanced, including the repeal of the juvenile direct file statute and the removal of the penalty of life without parole for individuals under 18 who commit murder.

Remaining in the bill are provisions that establish a system determining if a minor is competent to stand trial and provide for automatic expungement of juvenile records for many misdemeanor offenses.

Also, the legislation bans the practice of holding minors in adult jails prior to trial. Without this prohibition, Indiana would have been out of compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and could have lost nearly $1 million annually in federal funding.

“Senate Bill 368 is going to have huge impact on young people who become involved with the criminal justice system,” said Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis. “Young people make mistakes but everyone has the right to move on with their life, and I hope those young people who get a second chance because of this legislation take advantage of that opportunity. They have bright futures, and this bill will help them get there.”

Breaux and Sen. James Buck, R-Kokomo, are co-authors of SEA 368. In addition, the House sponsors are Republican Reps. Wendy McNamara of Evansville and Gregory Steuerwald of Avon as well as Democratic Reps. Matt Pierce of Bloomington and Ragen Hatcher of Gary.

Hatcher applauded the passage of juvenile justice bill but also called for more to be done.

“This is a good step but it is only one step in addressing our court system and how it treats our children,” she said. “We must move forward in breaking the school-to-prison pipeline. That means addressing the root problem of our juvenile justice system and the institutional racism within the system that disproportionately places our Black children in adult courts.”

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