In 1902, Indiana became the second state in the nation to establish a juvenile court. There was good reason for a separate system, as two juvenile court judges tried to remind a Senate committee last month. But the committee disregarded their testimony, and last week the full Senate passed Senate Bill 449, a measure that would waive more juvenile offenders to adult court and potentially have them serve longer sentences in Indiana Department of Correction facilities.
The bill, authored by Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, is a response to anger about the handling of the case of a 13-year-old boy who shot and wounded a teacher and a student at Noblesville Middle School.
If he had killed someone in the May 2018 attack, the boy could have been tried as an adult. Because it was a case of attempted murder, the boy was sent to juvenile court and committed to a secured juvenile facility.
Houchin's bill expands the list of offenses that could get a juvenile waived to adult court. The original bill also would have lowered the age at which a child could be tried as an adult to 12, though Houchin agreed to amend the bill to keep the lowest age at 13.
But as Allen Superior Court Judge Charles Pratt and Marion Superior Court Judge Marilyn Moores told lawmakers, SB 449 is not the answer to concerns about youth crime and violence.
Those who created Indiana's juvenile court system at the beginning of the last century “recognized that children are fundamentally different from adults – they're not little adults,” Moores said. Research in the years since has shown that they were right. “We now know their brains are not fully developed” and they are less likely to make good choices and understand their consequences, she said.
But young offenders are also “the most rehabilitable,” Moores added. “The younger kids are, the more elastic their brains are.” The juvenile system is designed to give young offenders the kind of attention that might allow them to turn their lives around; the adult corrections system is not.
“There are numerous studies ... that confirm that waiver to adult court causes juveniles to reoffend more seriously, more quickly and more violently. It just doesn't work.” Moores said.
Pratt agreed. “If we think that saying we're going to throw you into the adult system is going to have a deterrent effect, that's a myth,” said the judge, who has spent more than 30 years working in the juvenile court system. “A teenager doesn't think that way.”
Lawmakers concerned about protecting society, Pratt suggested, should focus on strategies to rehabilitate youthful offenders before they reenter society and prevent recidivism. The juvenile system was created precisely for that purpose, he argued.
“There is no rehabilitation that's effective for children – 12-year-olds – in an adult system,” he argued.
The legislators who ignored those arguments did acknowledge the danger that SB 449 could exacerbate the issues facing young minority offenders and agreed to set up a study committee on that problem. Moores noted that 86% of the juveniles sent to adult court in Marion County since 2015 were nonwhite.
A similar bill introduced by Houchin last year passed the Senate but stalled in the House. The House should once again block this well-intended but misdirected meddling with juvenile justice policy.