Frustration over a school shooting – this one at Noblesville West Middle School last month – understandably fuels a desire to do something to stop the violence. But Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma's call to review state criminal code regarding juveniles being charged as adults is a prime example of how not to make law.
Thankfully, no one died at the Noblesville school on May 25. Thirteen-year-old Ella Whistler was shot seven times and faces a long recovery. Teacher Jason Seaman, hailed as a hero for tackling the alleged shooter, also 13, was shot three times but not critically injured.
Hamilton County Prosecutor D. Lee Buckingham likely touched off Bosma's ill-advised plan when he noted the suspect would have faced 11 counts, including two felony charges each of attempted murder, aggravated battery and battery by means of a deadly weapon, if he were an adult.
“Under current Indiana law, this case is not eligible to be heard in adult court despite the heinous or aggravated nature of the alleged acts and despite the serious harm caused,” Buckingham said in a written statement.
State law allows children that young to be charged as adults only if they are accused of murder.
“In light of the Noblesville West Middle School incident and the recent charges brought against the shooter, we are reviewing current state law in regards to juveniles being charged as adults,” the House speaker announced Wednesday. “Given the heinous acts that led to a teacher and student being seriously harmed, I think it's important for us to take a thoughtful look at our criminal code and whether changes to the law are appropriate.”
Bosma's election-year announcement comes as no surprise. A school shooting inevitably prompts calls for action, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly undoubtedly wants to deflect calls for gun regulation.
If Hoosiers focus on his status as a juvenile, they might not think about the .22-caliber and .45-caliber handguns the suspect carried into his science classroom. Or how he got those guns and from whom.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, told WIBC-FM radio that legislators should try to find out what happened before considering changes to the law.
“We know nothing about who this child was and why he did what he did,” Landis said.
Jason Seaman's mother made the same observation.
“He's just a kid. There's got to be something else going on,” Kristi Seaman told the Indianapolis Star. “I work in a school office, and sometimes we know things that the public doesn't know. You have to trust in those who have to make decisions.”
Juvenile justice officials make those decisions, and they long ago reached consensus that children accused of criminal acts should not be treated the same as adults. Extensive research has shown the frontal lobe of the brain – the decision-making center – develops during adolescence. Juvenile justice emphasizes rehabilitation, with help for mental illness, learning disabilities and more, while adult courts focus on punishment.
Landis told WIBC the juvenile system can provide more services to a 13-year-old incarcerated until age 21 than would be available to a 13-year-old waived to adult court and sent to prison.
The same caution gun-rights supporters urge after every mass shooting should apply in this case, as well. Calling for quick changes to thoughtfully considered juvenile law is no different than calls for tighter gun regulations.