INDIANAPOLIS — Monday afternoon the Indiana Senate is due to take up House Bill 1256, which restores the ability to send 16 and 17-year-old offenders straight to adult court if they’re arrested for a second gun offense.
Opponents of the bill argue that now is the time to fix some bad legislation.
Due to an Indiana Supreme Court ruling that left in doubt the authority of the state’s juvenile justice system to hear guns cases filed against some teenagers, Representative Wendy McNamara — a Republican of Posey County — authored the legislation that returns those cases to Juvenile Court and also reinstates the practice to direct file adult charges against teens in Superior Court without Juvenile Court review.
“I am just restating what our law currently was,” McNamara told the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee. “I’m putting back into law what has currently been in practice for as long as I can know, therefore, I’m not placing myself in the position of the judge. We’re just giving them to opportunity to establish jurisdiction where we thought they had, and we’re renewing that.”
When McNamara was unable to adequately answer the question of Senator Greg Taylor — a Democrat from Indianapolis — regarding the impact of the bill on safeguarding the community, Committee Chairman Senator Mike Young — a Republican from Marion County — stepped in.
“We don’t think kids who go out and use guns and they’ve been convicted once of a gun crime and now have been convicted a second time of a gun crime ought to remain in juvenile court jurisdiction,” he said. “They ought to be tried in adult court. That’s the policy. Guns are dangerous, and kids with guns do dangerous things, and we gave them one break, and on the second one we’re going to send them to adult court.”
Youth advocates testified that Indiana’s adult criminal justice system is ill-equipped to prosecute, punish and treat the teen offenders who would be affected by HB 1256.
“How is it that we are leaving children in their homes that are not safe, and then we’re going to talk about punishing them and treating them as adults later?” asked Jill English of Child Advocates.
“We are calling these young men monsters, so to speak on paper. Why would we send them to a cage full of monsters?” asked Tony Radlciff, a mentor with the New Boy program. “Most of them are just teddy bears in monsters clothing, and they just need someone to talk to.”
“Just because they’ve done it twice doesn’t mean that they’re not kids anymore,” said Joel Wieneke of the Indiana Public Defender Council. “They’re still kids.”
Jill Johnson told the committee she was the defense attorney for the teenager on whose case the Supreme Court decided that prevailing state statute did not apply in gun crime prosecutions and issued the ruling that necessitated the introduction of HB 1256.
Johnson said that sending more teens directly into the adult system, whether or not their second charge was as the result of violence committed with a firearm, would actually backfire in denying those offenders appropriate services.
“The vast majority of them stay in the juvenile detention center while their case progresses,” she said. “If they’re adjudicated, most of them have an independent evaluation and all of them have an independent case plan that’s put in place to help support these children and have them become better, productive citizens.”
Johnson said if a teen gun offender is automatically waived to adult court without a hearing, “they’re gonna get a bond. They’re gonna be back on the streets, and they’re gonna be back on the streets before they have any kind of individualized treatment — the kind of individualized treatment they probably never will get,” and upon conviction, “they’re gonna get placed on probation or maybe community correction.
“Community correction isn’t designed or equipped to meet the needs of children, and then they violate, and then they go to prison, and then they come out as convicted felons, unable to get a job, unable to become a productive member of our community. Is this what we want? Is this better for children? Is this better for public safety?”
Senator Taylor said he opposed the bill based on a recent study, authorized by the committee, that found 83% of the young offenders being sent directly to adult court without a hearing on firearms charges are children of color and are therefore being set on a path to commit more crimes.
“I get tired of people complaining about the violence in Marion County by these young people, and then we come back and we do stuff like this, and then we come back the next year and say, ‘Oh, my god, there was another quadruple murder in Indianapolis.’
“You know what, that kid’s gonna pay, but you know what, so are these kids, and they’re gonna pay by taking the life of somebody else because they have no hope and no dream of success because we put them in a court at 16 years old.
“We are legislating directly sending these kids to adult court, so we are complicit in the violence that continues in my community.”
McNamara reminded the committee that she has been at the forefront of legislation to reform Indiana’s juvenile justice system.
“It’s not my intention to put more juveniles in adult court,” she said. “It’s not my intention to put more juveniles in a system that probably isn’t set for them.”
The committee was advised that the proposed legislation could restore the authority of juvenile courts to hear firearms offenses without the amendment to automatically waive over some teens to adult court.
Even supporters of the bill said they hope the complicating issues of the legislation will be dealt with during the during second hearing on the Senate floor.