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The Indiana Legislature is considering Senate Bill 279, which would allow 12- and 13-year-old children to be tried as adults for the offense of attempted murder. This bill has been filed as a response to the tragic and horrifying school shooting last year in Noblesville. It is the wrong response.

I served for two years as a corrections officer with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. Before that, I worked for more than 10 years with the North Carolina and Washington state departments of corrections. In Raleigh, I supervised the Maximum Security Unit and served as a field training officer, lead investigator of security threat groups and the negotiations lead for the Prison Emergency Response Team.

I am also the mother of a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old. Under this legislation, they are just one and two years away from being considered adults by the justice system. To me, this is an extremely disturbing thought, because I know firsthand that the adult corrections facilities are no place for children so young.

In one of the facilities where I worked, a child was ordered by adult gang leaders to commit an assault. He attacked a man in the hallway on the way to the shower, with officers all around, and added years to his sentence. When we asked him why he followed the gang’s instructions, he said that it didn’t matter, because his life was already over.

Children this young are extraordinarily vulnerable to harm, both from adult prisoners and from being placed in solitary confinement to protect them from other inmates. Research shows that nationwide, children incarcerated with adults are five times more likely to be assaulted by adults and nine times more likely to commit suicide than children in juvenile facilities.

Transferring children to the adult system also fails to protect public safety. Nationally, children prosecuted in the adult system have a 34 percent higher recidivism rate than those who remain in the juvenile system. In the adult system, age-appropriate services for such young children are non-existent.

I understand the need for survivors of violence to see justice and restitution. However, trying 12-year-olds as adults is counterproductive. We have a juvenile system designed and equipped to handle them, which holds them accountable for their offenses and provides them with the programs they need to change their path.

Judges and juvenile justice authorities agree that children are capable of surprising rehabilitation and change. Their brains are still developing and maturing, and they are extremely susceptible to peer pressure and struggle to control their impulses. They also tend to be more open and amenable to treatment and rehabilitation than adults, so the juvenile system is designed accordingly.

This legislation would attempt to throw children away before they have even reached high school. I know Indiana can do better than give up on children who, like two of mine, are not even teenagers yet. Twelve- and 13-year-olds will respond successfully to services and treatment. The adult system, which is not designed for them, will make things worse.

Sending young children to adult facilities also impacts corrections officers. Being responsible for children who are surrounded by adult inmates is a nightmare scenario for us. It would add significant stress and risk to an already difficult job.

I am encouraged to see a different bill — Senate Bill 266, which has already passed the Senate — illustrate the right way to respond to the Noblesville shooting. It helps schools develop plans for mental health and substance use disorder services for vulnerable students. It also requires experts to develop recommendations for how best to provide mental health services, early intervention, and treatment for young children who need it. By identifying troubled children and providing them with the support and services they need, this plan can prevent tragedies like the Noblesville West shooting.

The shooting was terrifying and traumatic for the survivors, for the entire town, and indeed for all of Indiana, including parents of school-age children like me. But sending young children into the adult justice system will not prevent future school shootings. It will subject them to a system they cannot handle and that cannot adequately rehabilitate them. We already have a system that effectively holds troubled children accountable, and does it better than the adult system ever could.

Having seen the inside of our adult jails and prisons, I know that we must keep our children out of them.

Sheri Ray served for over a decade with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and the North Carolina and Washington State Departments of Corrections. She is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of corrections and police officers who support criminal justice solutions that will improve public safety. The opinions are the writer's.



Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.