A bill increasing the penalties for juvenile offenders passed a Senate committee on the night of Jan. 28 despite more than an hour of testimony from judges, attorneys, social workers, pastors and former inmates who all voiced strong and sometimes emotional opposition.
Senate Bill 449, authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, allows children charged with attempted murder to be tried as an adult and expands the direct file statute to include attempting to commit such crimes as kidnapping, rape and armed robbery. After passing the committee, it was scheduled to receive a second reading in the Senate on Feb. 3.
Many of those opposed to the measure crowded into the Senate Correction and Criminal Law Committee hearing at 9 a.m. Jan. 28, filling the seats in the room, standing against the wall and even flowing into the hallway. But a decision by the committee chair, R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, to hear six other bills first, including the controversial Senate Bill 436, resulted in SB 449 not being considered before the legislators had to go into caucus, then a session of the full Senate. So, Young adjourned, then resumed the hearing after 5 p.m.
Some grumbled that the move was intentional, discouraging people from waiting around to testify. Several physicians who were at the Statehouse in the morning were not able to return in the evening to testify. Also, Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, sat through the committee hearing in the morning but had to fly back to her organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in the afternoon.
Kenneth Allen, chairman of the Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males, stood outside the committee hearing room, hoping he would get a chance to speak in opposition to the bill. Rushing children into the criminal justice system, he said while waiting, would do too much harm and not be in the state’s best interest.
“We have to redirect our resources,” Allen said, wearing a white T-shirt with “Young Black Males Matter” on the front. “We shouldn’t be closing down schools and building prisons, that’s not the answer. I think we have an obligation as a state that has a surplus to invest some of those resources into education, into prenatal care and into prekindergarten.”
Introducing the bill after the committee reconvened, Houchin acknowledged the topic the measure addresses is difficult to discuss, but she said it is one that Indiana must handle. She referenced the 2018 shooting at Noblesville West Middle School and pointed to what she called a loophole in state law that prevented the 13-year-old student offender from being waived to adult court and facing adult penalties because his victims lived. He was subsequently charged in juvenile court with attempted murder.
Juvenile court judges Marilyn Moores of Marion County and Charles Pratt of Allen County led the opposition testimony and preceded nearly 50 other speakers. Both jurists spoke of juvenile offenders’ capacity to be rehabilitated and the need to provide them with therapeutic programming. “We’re talking about a 12-year-old child,” Pratt told the committee.
They also cleared some confusion and confirmed that some 16- and 17-year-olds who were awaiting trial in adult court are, in fact, placed in adult jails.
Sherrie Dunn-Lanier reinforced the sentiment that the bill would incarcerate children by appearing before the committee with a 5-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl.
A young man shared his story of getting into trouble and being arrested after he was abandoned by his mother and left with his drug-addicted father. He credited his time in juvenile justice with helping him become a productive adult. Another man recounted the 30 days he spent as a juvenile in adult jail and asked the committee not to place that “level of burden” on kids.
Social workers, criminal defense attorneys and youth advocates presented data showing incarcerated youngsters have higher rates of recidivism often for more serious crimes. They emphasized the need for mental health services.
Several, including Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, raised concern that the bill would bring more racial disparity to the state’s criminal justice system.
Ministering Evangelist Denell Howard of Hovey Street Church of Christ and volunteer chaplain at the Marion County juvenile detention center was visibly angry. He has seen youths incarcerated in the adult system who have been sodomized, abused and become even more criminal, while teenagers in juvenile detention have received an education and participated in programming that helps them get redirected.
Howard called SB 449 “white supremacy at its finest,” saying an overwhelming number of children in juvenile detention are minorities.
“(The Legislature) should be encouraging and enhancing and empowering the juvenile system, giving it all that it needs to equip these boys and these girls to come back into society, rehabilitated, stronger and with better behavior,” Howard said. “They should not be focused on sending kids to prison.”
SB 449 was changed during the course of the hearing, with amendments being written by the Legislative Services Agency attorney while the committee was taking testimony. Even during her introduction, Houchin said she would be open to raising the age for waiver to adult court for murder and attempted murder to 13, instead of the bill’s original waiver age of 12. Also, she said she could strengthen a provision that would prohibit children under 18 from being incarcerated in an adult facility, and she would support a study of racial disparity in the juvenile justice system.
On consent, the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law committee passed an amendment that raised the age to 13 and created the study committee. Two other amendments authored by Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, that appeared to soften the language in parts of the bill, were withdrawn before the hearing.
After the committee adjourned shortly after lunch, Mistrett noted with SB 449, Indiana is actually going against the national trend of providing services to offending youths and not putting them into the adult system.
She cited research that shows incarcerating children with adults does not make the public safer and, indeed, thwarts the opportunity to modify behavior and rehabilitate young offenders. Also, juveniles placed in adult correctional facilities often are dependent on public assistance once they are released because they have a more difficult time finding employment and housing.
“There’s no research that says this works,” Mistrett said of trying and sentencing juveniles as adults. “Literally no research says this works.”
The bill passed on a 4-2 vote. Sens. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, and Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, opposed the measure.
Glick said the committee did not have enough time and she did not want to pass a measure that was amended on the fly.
Committee chairman Young, along with Sens. Jack Sandlin, Eric Koch and Justin Busch, approved the bill. A similar bill passed the Senate last year before stalling in the House.
The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which led the effort that stopped last year’s measure, Senate Bill 279, was disappointed SB 449 advanced.
“Despite the amendments to make the bill better, the amendments did not make a bad bill good,” JauNae Hanger, attorney and president of CPLI, said, noting young children and teenagers would be entering the adult system.
“We are saddened that the Indiana Senate is again allowing this type of bill to go forward, as they did last year, because such approaches are not effective with children and are a step back for Indiana,” Hanger continued. “Harsh, punitive approaches such as these lead to more extensive involvement of children in our criminal justice system and undermine public safety. We are grateful, however, for an engaged public that is pushing back and helping to defeat this legislation.”
After the vote, a chant of “No Justice, No Peace” broke out briefly from the crowd. Many were disappointed, hugging each other and pledging to continue their opposition.
Dunn-Lanier stood outside the committee hearing room and cried.•