Over the past year, high rates of COVID-19 behind bars and the killing of George Floyd have reminded the nation that contact with the criminal justice system can often be more harmful to community health and safety than helpful. While Indiana lawmakers have made moves to mitigate criminal justice harms in the context of policing, the state’s youth justice system is in desperate need of legislative reforms that better serve kids.

For conservatives concerned about rising fiscal costs, it is imperative that the state only invest in the most effective reforms. In juvenile justice, this means investing in approaches that treat children like children, strengthen families and maintain public safety. Fortunately, Indiana has the opportunity to enact bipartisan legislation this session that does all three, with S.B. 368 already passed out of the Senate and now under consideration in the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code.

They can start this process by ensuring children are never kept in jails and prisons designed for adults. Research has unequivocally shown that children who are housed in adult jails and prisons have much worse outcomes than those in youth settings. Years ago, the Indiana Department of Corrections recognized this and placed all youth in juvenile facilities until their 18th birthday. Federal law now requires states to do the same for youth who must be housed pre-trial, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding at stake if the state doesn’t comply. Many Indiana counties are on the path toward accomplishing this—56 counties had no children at risk of being held in adult jails in 2020, and well over two-thirds of the counties had two or fewer. Legislation would simply bring the state into compliance to ensure the safety of children involved in the justice system.

Second, the state can improve due process for kids by instituting a standard or process by which to determine a youth’s competency to stand trial. Indiana is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t have this legal protection, leaving adolescents and children with mental, developmental or intellectual disabilities at risk of being found delinquent rather than receiving support through more appropriate systems of care. Establishing a developmentally appropriate competency standard will help strengthen families by allowing children to receive care in the most appropriate system available to them.

Finally, lawmakers can promote second chances by ensuring children eligible for expungement are able to have their record cleared automatically. Juvenile records can bar children from future employment, military service, public housing and education long after they’ve proven their rehabilitation. While expungement processes seek to rectify this, kids in Indiana currently have to petition for expungement, present documentation to the courts and wait for a judge to rule. This process is lengthy and burdensome for them and the courts; it would be far better for Indiana to allow juvenile records to be automatically expunged a year following a youth’s discharge by the court.

Indiana has had success with youth justice reform in the past. Since 2006, the state has heavily invested in building community alternatives to incarceration for youth engaging in low- or moderate-risk behavior instead of sending them to high-cost youth prisons. As a result, between 20092019 new youth admissions to the Indiana Department of Corrections dropped well over 50 percent. Meanwhile, cases against youth continue to drop.

It is time for Indiana to take its next step in juvenile justice reform and support these sensible reforms focused on advancing public safety, appropriate systems of care and second chances while keeping children safe.

Image credit: Billion Photos

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