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Coalition seeks to reimagine Indiana’s juvenile legal system

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Leaders from organizations around Indiana are asking state lawmakers to change several bills dealing with guns and youth. These organizations said the legislation would increase the number of children prosecuted in the adult system.

Don “Don” Dyson knows what it’s like to face gun possession charges at a young age.

“When I started carrying a gun, it was for protection and driven by trauma. I was not old enough to have a permit. I had no intentions of harming a soul, and I never did,” Dyson explained in a virtual briefing Monday afternoon.

He was thrown in jail, which sent his life in a direction he didn’t want.

“I am not condoning my prior actions. I’m simply trying to educate others as to why some young people carry guns. Placing them in an adult facility is not going to help them,” Dyson said.

On Monday, the Indiana Coalition for Youth Justice urged state lawmakers to change three bills they believe would increase the number of children prosecuted in the adult system.

The bills the coalition mentions are: House Bill 1369, House Bill 1256 and Senate Bill 197.

“United Methodist Women of Indiana encourage the Indiana legislature to amend these bills, to remove gun possession offenses from the direct-file statute,” Kathie Clemenz, president of the United Methodist Women of Indiana, said Monday afternoon in a virtual press conference.

The Coalition feels directly filing children into the adult system punishes, instead of providing services aimed at improving their futures.

“We know that over 90% of youth in the justice system have experienced at least one form of childhood trauma. Youth who are likely victims of trauma themselves are not well served in and in fact could be made worse in the adult courts, where punishment, not rehabilitation is the primary purpose,” said Dr. Sarah Stelzner, with the Indiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

And the Indianapolis Urban League argues that the legislation disproportionately impacts Indiana’s Black children.

“Black children in Indiana are only 14% of Indiana’s juvenile population but account for nearly 36% of cases in juvenile court. Children are less culpable for their actions and more capable of rehabilitation and their brain development in areas of reasoning and self-control are not fully developed often until their mid-20s,” said Mark Russell with the Indianapolis Urban League.

That’s why members of the coalition said they want a juvenile legal system that uses a trauma-informed developmental approach that is culturally responsive and based on brain-development science.

“By keeping children in juvenile facilities, we are investing in them and their future and we’re investing in our community as a whole, so, we’re ultimately giving these kids a chance to learn, grow and re-enter society as engaged and contributing citizens,” Sarah Williams, public policy and advocacy director with McCoy, said in a virtual press conference Monday afternoon.

State Rep. Ben Smaltz, a Republican from Auburn, recently talked about his bill: “This bill is for everybody who has obeyed the law, that wants to protect themselves and their family, and up until the passing of this bill, will have to jump over hurdle upon hurdle and pay fee upon fee to do what criminals do immediately and for free. This bill is for the lawful Indiana resident, the law abiding non-criminal.”

In a statement to News 8 on Monday evening, Smaltz explained, “This bill would not create a new offense. Currently, Indiana law states someone found to be carrying a firearm without a license is charged with illegal possession of a handgun without a license. All we’re doing is taking out the without a license part of that law.”

In a statement sent to News 8 Monday evening, state Sen. Mike Young, a Republican from Indianapolis, spoke about his bill:

“Until recently, the Dangerous Possession of a Firearm offense was in state law, and I never heard any concerns about that provision from my constituents or from the Indiana Coalition for Youth Justice. Not once did this organization ever complain about this provision in Indiana law. Now, after a court ruled that this language couldn’t be used against minors because there was not a similar law that applied to adults, this group says the law is unfair. There are dozens of additional good measures in SB 197 that will help keep the citizens of Indiana safe. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me to advocate against a good piece of legislation that does a variety of helpful things just because some people have concerns over one part of the bill that was already in state law before.”