Juvenile justice behind the curve?

2011-06-05T23:00:00Z 2011-06-06T07:40:04Z Juvenile justice behind the curve?By Susan Brown susan.brown@nwi.com, (219) 662-5325 nwitimes.com

States are taking a hard look at when juvenile offenders should be treated as adults, even as Indiana opens the door wider to prosecuting juveniles as adults.

Connecticut, has stopped treating all 16-year-olds as adults. Similarly, Wisconsin have upped the age limits at which certain offenders may remain under juvenile jurisdiction.

According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, at least 38 states in 2007 set 17 as the oldest age at which defendants come under juvenile jurisdiction.

Indiana is among them. But since the 1980s, lawmakers have more than tripled the types of crimes for which 16- and 17-year-old juveniles are automatically prosecuted in adult court.

"They just keep taking crimes away from us," Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura said.

Bonaventura said, overall, Indiana has taken a "middle of the road" path compared to more hard-line states such as New York, which treats all 16-year-old offenders as adults.

"But we can do better," she said.

Lawmakers have given juvenile courts no jurisdiction over 17 offenses, from attempted murder to dealing in certain drugs if the defendant is at least 16. That's up from perhaps four offenses since the mid-1980s, according to Jeff Bercovitz, an attorney with the Indiana Judicial Center.

And once waived to adult court, repeat offenders find themselves "always waived," Bercovitz said.

Cooperation between adult, juvenile courts?

Mike Dempsey, executive director of the Youth Services Division of the Indiana Department of Correction, said many cases aren't that clear-cut, and there are areas in which the state is behind the curve.

Citing a recent case in which a 12-year-old was tried and convicted of murder as an adult, Dempsey argued the "totality of the circumstances" be considered even when someone has died.

"That kid didn't wake up one morning and decide he was going to kill somebody," he said.

"There's lots of pressure to waive them to adult court," Dempsey said of juveniles.

The problem is, there's no mechanism open to adult-court judges to refer them back to juvenile jurisdiction if the circumstances warrant it, he said.

"In other states, the (adult-court) judge has the option to suspend the adult sentence and favor a placement in the juvenile system," Dempsey said of what is called blended sentencing, or dual jurisdiction.

Dempsey said the Indiana DOC is may pursue a blended-sentencing law in the next legislative session, which starts in January.

Brains don't mature until 25

Currently, the ages at which juveniles are tried under juvenile or adult-court jurisdiction in Indiana is a bewildering maze in which a 10-year-old may be charged with murder in adult court, as can a 14-year-old charged with a repeat felonies.

The tightening of juvenile laws in Indiana comes at a time when Bonaventura and other juvenile justice advocates cite research by the National Institutes of Health showing that advanced functions of the brain do not fully mature until well into early adulthood.

The study was used in a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing the death penalty for those younger than 18.

Bonaventura believes the research argues for Indiana creating a youthful offender law, which would offer the rehabilitative benefits of juvenile court into early adulthood, perhaps even until age 25.

"If we know our brains change up to the age of 25 and that's why insurance companies drop their cost (at that age), maybe we should have something available until that age," she said of expanding the purview of the juvenile justice system to older teens and young adults.

Critics contend the extra costs of rehabilitation offered through juvenile courts may be prohibitive, but Bonaventura counters that it actually costs more to house a prisoner.

"We're going to pay now, or we're going to pay later," she said.

Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel, however, said even without formal legislation, those in the criminal justice system already give consideration to the defendant's age.

"I don't have any particular qualms," he said of the current system.

If a line is to be drawn, Gensel draws it on the side of the nonviolent juvenile offender.

"The ante is upped for those charged in a case of violence," he said. "People wring their hands over the fact youthful offenders get 40- or 50-year sentences, but the law is structured to keep law-abiding citizens safe."

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