Indiana Passes Youth Justice Reform Bill

Legislation | 04/19/2021

Kayla Mattas
Marketing and Communications Director, Stand for Children Indiana

In a legislative session rife with contentious moments and partisan strife, lawmakers from both parties came together to pass a landmark bill that will improve key aspects of Indiana’s youth justice system. Authored by Indiana State Senator Tallian (D - Portage), Senate Bill 368 passed that chamber for a final time by a vote of 48-0 and will now head to Governor Eric Holcomb, where it’s expected to be signed into law.

Senate Bill 368 makes three key changes to a youth justice system that advocates say disproportionately impacts children of color and often prioritizes incarceration over reform and supportive services. The bill:

Bans the jailing of youth in adult facilities pre-trial, except in extraordinary circumstances.

  • Indiana stood to lose significant federal funding if it did not make this change and fall in line with federal regulations.

Initiates automatic expungement of records for many misdemeanor offenses for youth aging out of the system, helping them get on a path to success as adults.

  • Without this change, youth who could not hire an attorney or navigate local justice systems, were left with their records intact — impacting future employment and other aspects of their adult lives.

Creates a system to establish competency for young people to stand trial, similar to the adult criminal justice system.

  • The science is clear that children don’t have a fully developed brain until they age into adulthood, and the state did not have a process to fully assess whether or not young offenders were competent to engage in their own defense.

The bill was strongly supported by the Indiana Coalition for Youth Justice, comprised of 55 organizations. Several system-impacted advocates showed up at the statehouse throughout the legislative session to voice their support and tell their stories.

Michael Smith was one of those advocates. Smith said he shared his story at the statehouse because he knows from experience how hard it is for Indiana youth to overcome past run-ins with the justice system, and because he believes his personal story proves that children can change.

“I want you to know that change is possible at any age, but especially for youth. I am still changing,” Smith said in testimony before both chambers. “I have dreams and goals and am actively working to better my life. We shouldn’t be sending the message that kids are not redeemable, because I believe every kid is.”

Del Collins believes this bill would have made a difference in his life, as his record as a youth continues to negatively impact his life to this day.

“If Senate Bill 368 bill would have been law when I was younger, it would have changed everything about my life today,” Collins said. “If my record had not been sitting on the back of my name for long, there would have been more opportunities for me.”

Along with Collins and Smith, more than 750 Hoosiers sent emails to lawmakers calling for the passage of Senate Bill 368. The strong support from the public was reflected in the bi-partisan backing the bill received, with only one no vote recorded throughout the session.

Stand for Children decided last fall to use its advocacy program to focus on youth justice in addition to education issues. The decision was made based on feedback from Stand’s parent members, as well as a belief that the youth justice system is strongly linked to the school-to-prison pipeline, which is impacting the educational futures of thousands of children – especially Black males.

“We want to thank the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, as well as the Public Defenders Council of Indiana for their tremendous leadership on Senate Bill 368,” said Stand Executive Director Justin Ohlemiller. “Without these two organizations, this bill never would have happened.”

Stand for Children is a proud member of the Indiana Youth Justice Coalition, which is a collaboration of individuals and organizations in Indiana who are demanding change in our youth justice system.

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