Young people should remain in the juvenile justice system, regardless of their crimes. Senate Bill 279 would automatically waive juvenile court jurisdiction over children 12 years and older who have been accused of attempted murder or murder, sending children to the adult court and prison systems.
Regardless of their actions, these children are still developing and should be given opportunities for treatment, rehabilitation and positive reinforcement. When youth under 18 are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons, these children are at greater risk of suicide and physical and sexual assault.
Even more troubling is the fact that Senate Bill 279 adds “attempted murder” to the automatic waiver, giving prosecutors immense discretion to charge a 12-year old in a way that will land that child in adult court and prison. Given the deep racial inequalities in every level of our criminal justice system, this type of discretion could be wielded against marginalized populations, specifically children of color in the juvenile justice system.
The over-representation of children of color in youth jails and prisons remains a persistent and troubling dynamic in almost all 50 states. According to The Sentencing Project, black youth in Indiana were placed in juvenile facilities at a rate approximately 4x that of white youth in 2015. This legislation would open up yet another subjective power for prosecutors that would likely lead to an increase in the already glaring racial disparities in our systems.
Indiana elected officials are seizing on quick-fix legislation that does little to increase our safety or improve the future for our children. Comprehensive studies done on crime prevention programs for youth conclude that crime prevention costs less than imprisonment. According to studies, early intervention programs that try to steer young people from wrongdoing can prevent as much as 250 crimes per $1 million spent. In contrast, investing the same amount in prisons would prevent only 60 crimes a year. Senate Bill 279 is yet another bill that would lead to spending more on corrections and less on prevention efforts such as increased mental health and counseling services in schools.
Indiana’s criminal justice system should not treat a 12-year old as an adult. It is my hope that elected officials will take a deeper look at policy reform that would help to prevent juvenile acts of violence, rather than passing knee-jerk legislation that deepens already severe disparities within the criminal justice system.
This article was originally featured in the Opinion section of the IndyStar.