Child advocates align against bill treating youth as adults in court system

By Victoria Arthur

Statehouse Correspondent for Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers

INDIANAPOLIS – Despite a chorus of opposition, a controversial bill that would send children as young as 12 to the adult criminal justice system has passed the Indiana Senate and now awaits consideration in the House.

Senate Bill 449, authored by Sen. Erin Houchin (R-Salem), would reduce the age from 13 to 12 for a minor to be tried as an adult in certain cases; increase penalties for attempted offenses; and open the door to hundreds of teenagers being automatically transferred from the juvenile to the adult court system. There, opponents argue, young people would be placed in a potentially dangerous environment where the emphasis is on punishment rather than rehabilitation – at an age when numerous studies show the brain is still developing and behavior can be changed with positive reinforcement.

Houchin sponsored a similar bill last year that passed the Senate before stalling in the House. Her proposed legislation is in response to a May 2018 shooting at Noblesville West Middle School in Hamilton County, in which a student injured a classmate and a teacher.

As it did with the 2019 bill, the Indiana Catholic Conference strongly opposes this measure.

“If a 12-year-old is committing serious crimes, society needs to intervene to determine how it happened and, with compassion, look to how we can prevent it from happening again,” said Angela Espada, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana, and a former deputy prosecutor. “Treating someone whose brain hasn’t fully developed as an adult without knowing how the child came to be involved in a crime doesn’t benefit the child or our society.”

The ICC’s concerns echo those of more than 40 organizations and individuals represented either in person or in writing at a Senate committee hearing on the bill last month. In her testimony, Judge Marilyn Moores noted that Indiana was the second state in the nation to adopt a juvenile court system more than a century ago because the legal community and lawmakers “recognized that children are fundamentally different than adults.

“A plethora of research confirms that the brains of children and youth are not fully developed, and they are not fully developed until the age of 25,” said Moores, a juvenile court judge in Marion County.

Calling the adult criminal justice system “a patently dangerous system for kids,” Moores also pointed to research demonstrating that the rates of recidivism – that is, repeat offenses – are higher for juveniles who are treated as adults.

“Waiver to adult court causes juveniles to re-offend more seriously, more quickly and more violently,” Moores said. “It just doesn’t work.”

In addition, she and other child advocates raised serious concerns about long-term mental health effects and increased suicide rates in young people subjected to the adult court system. While awaiting trial in adult correctional facilities, youth are frequently placed in solitary confinement to keep them from being physically or sexually assaulted by older inmates. But the impact of this isolation is devastating, according to Dr. Sarah Stelzner, an Indianapolis-based pediatrician and legislative co-chair for the Indiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“This is a toxic environment for children,” Stelzner said. “Young people held in adult facilities are nine times more likely to commit suicide. This is tragic when research clearly shows that children at this age can be helped in the proper environment.” She and others with grave concerns about Senate Bill 449 also noted that it would have an especially negative impact on children of color, who are already over-represented in the legal system.

Following its Feb. 4 passage by the Senate in a 31-18 vote, the bill was referred to the House committee on courts and criminal code. The coalition that opposed and ultimately succeeded in defeating Houchin’s proposed legislation last year must stand firm against this bill as well, said JauNae Hanger, an attorney and president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana.

“It’s hard to fathom why legislators are even considering this,” Hanger said. “We know that children are amenable to rehabilitation, and that harsh punishment doesn’t bring about the desired result of changing behavior. We are working very hard to prevent a hearing on this bill in the House.”

To follow Senate Bill 449 and other priority legislation of the ICC, visit