A bill that would lower the age at which juveniles could be sent to the Indiana Department of Correction passed the Indiana Senate last week and now moves to the House.
The bill, authored by state Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, would allow courts to sentence children as young as 12 to the Department of Correction and expands the list of crimes that could send a child to jail to include an attempt to commit murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. The bill also increases the maximum sentence for juveniles to six years.
In testimony before a senate committee, Houchin said this bill, as well as a similar one in the previous legislative session, were proposed on the heels of a shooting at a Noblesville middle school in May 2018. In that incident, a 13-year-old student shot and injured a classmate and a teacher, but could not be charged as an adult for attempted murder.
“Unfortunately in this case, the perpetrator was sentenced to a juvenile facility where he will be released on his 18th birthday with no record, if not sooner,” Houchin said in front of the committee.
Reaction to the bill is mixed.
St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said he supports the bill and sees it applying only in very rare cases.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time what we need to do is give (juveniles) care and support from the community,” Cotter said. “I just want options to protect our community in those extremely rare cases.”
According to data collected by the state, there were only 11 children in Indiana who were charged with any of the offenses the bill would apply to from 2015 to 2018 while they were 12.
Opponents of the bill, however, say placing juveniles in detention facilities is not effective for the offender’s rehabilitation, even for serious crimes.
“It’s too young, it’s way too young,” St. Joseph County Probate Court Judge Jason Cichowicz said. “Kids make mistakes, kids make poor judgment calls and sometimes that results in harsh things that happen in the community. I think we should be working with them to see if we can make a breakthrough.”
Cichowicz, who was a juvenile public defender for more than a decade, said providing counseling and other services for juveniles and their families is often more effective than sending an offender to jail, because the Department of Correction may not have the programs in place to best address each individual’s needs.
“We’re the ones that have been working with the child for a long time, we’ve seen them coming in the court,” Cichowicz said. “I don’t necessarily want to hand the baton off to somebody and reinvent the wheel.”
The bill, while not directly contradicting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limiting life sentences for juveniles, does run counter to the justification given for that decision. The Court found persuasive scientific testimony that juvenile brains have not developed to the point of adult understanding of consequences and impulse control.
Both Cichowicz and Bill Bruinsma, the executive director of the county’s juvenile justice center, also oppose a provision in the bill which allows juveniles to be sentenced to the DOC for up to six years.
The bill does mandate a report be sent to the court when the juvenile turns 18, but Bruinsma said he would like to see annual updates on the child’s progress.
“I would have asked that evaluation of progress come back every year,” Bruinsma said. “People change and that would tell us if they are being rehabilitated.”
Cotter feels the proposed six-year limit gives prosecutors more leeway in handling juveniles and could lead to him trying fewer juveniles as adults. He explained he sometimes requests to waive juvenile cases to adult court if he feels a child would not receive an adequately long sentence.
Under current law, a juvenile who commits a serious offense cannot be sentenced past the age of 18 if the child is younger than 16 at the time of the offense.
An amendment added to the legislation would create a review panel to study racial disparity in the juvenile justice system after opponents, notably Indianapolis Democrat Greg Taylor, expressed concerns the bill would make racial divides in the juvenile justice system worse.
The bill also includes provisions that prevent inmates under 21 years old from being housed in the general population of a prison and inmates under 18 to be housed in the same cell as an adult in county jails.