More than a century ago, the states began building separate criminal justice systems for juvenile offenders. This development came about after the public learned more about childhood development and wanted to make sure that young offenders had a chance to become happy, healthy and productive members of society as adults.
Over the years, the juvenile justice system has often fallen short of those good intentions, but it has helped ensure that many young offenders have a chance to turn their lives around.
However, the public’s compassion for juvenile offenders tends to dry up in cases involving shocking crimes or in times when the crime rate is going up. This was the case in the 1990s when crack cocaine addiction and other issues led to a nationwide increase in violent crime. During that time, it became increasingly common to charge juveniles as adults.
Many activists say this situation has led to too many irreparably ruined lives. It also falls disproportionately on defendants who are poor and/or people of color.
Under Indiana law, there are two ways to charge youth as adults.
In the first, the case begins in juvenile court, and then the prosecution moves to have the matter transferred to the criminal justice system for adults. If the juvenile court agrees, it can send children as young as 12 into the adult system. This typically happens in cases involving violent crimes such as murder.
The second way bypasses the juvenile court altogether so that prosecutors can file the case directly into the adult system. These cases typically involve defendants who are 16 or 17 and charges such as murder, rape or armed robbery.
Records show that 65 such defendants had their cases directly filed into Indiana’s adult system between July 2020 and June 2021. The vast majority — 85% — were Black.
Activists have been trying to reform the law so that fewer minors will be tried as adults, but they have not had much success with Indiana lawmakers. In fact, a law currently working its way through the state legislature would make it easier for the adult system to have jurisdiction over some juvenile justice cases.
The right to a defense
Whether they are tried as a juvenile or as an adult, those who are accused of crimes have the right to a defense. Prosecutors can be merciless when they are seeking a conviction. They’re also well prepared and work for well-funded agencies. This means a young offender needs all the help they can get when they are defending their freedom and their future.