Protect Indiana youth in detention

A juvenile justice bill that would expunge records, keep youth from being detained with adults and consider the competency of young offenders passed out of the state Senate last week.

For the safety of young people held in state custody, Senate Bill 368 deserves passage by the House.

The bill, authored by Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, would make the expungement of juvenile records automatic, unless the young offender commits a felony. Included in the proposal: a court has discretion in determining if the record should be expunged.

The second part of the bill, and its most important, prohibits juveniles from being held with adult inmates as they await trial, though there are exceptions that would place a minor in an adult facility.

In 2016, The Atlantic magazine reported 1,200 young offenders were among the 1.5 million people being held in federal and state prisons.

"These children lose more than their freedom when they enter adult prisons; they lose out on the educational and psychological benefits offered by juvenile-detention facilities. Worse, they are much more likely to suffer sexual abuse and violence at the hands of other inmates and prison staff," the magazine said. "The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission described their fate in blunt terms in a 2009 report: ‘More than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk of sexual abuse.’"

The article went on to say young offenders held in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth detained away from adult populations.

During a committee hearing, SB 368 co-author Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said the state will lose $800,000 in federal funding if it doesn’t comply with the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, which states that youth held in adult jails, including those charged as adults, have to be moved to juvenile detention centers by the end of 2021.

The bill passed 46-1, with Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, voting against. It does not include an exception that children 11 years old and younger be presumed incompetent unless a prosecutor proves otherwise. Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee Chairman Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, said by law incompetency must be proven by attorneys.

Under Senate Bill 368, children will no longer be in the "lion’s den" of adult jails, which Indiana Code currently permits for those as young as 12 committing even minor offenses. The federal government already has taken action to safeguard young offenders. The Indiana House must now do its part to make that change.