A proposed amendment that would automatically move certain juvenile robbery suspects to adult court is raising alarm among youth advocates.
Senate Bill 170, written by Republican State Sen. Michael Young, who represents District 35, would amend the so-called “direct file statute” to include pharmacy robbery among the list of juvenile offenses sent directly to adult court. That list currently includes attempted murder, murder, rape and other crimes. In the law’s current iteration, robbery is only included in the statute if it involves a deadly weapon or bodily injury.
If Young’s measure passes into law, juveniles would only have to imply they had a weapon.
“With the current law, you have to see the deadly weapon,” Young said during a Wednesday morning Judiciary Committee hearing. “If you say or write that you have a weapon, it’ll count as a direct file.”
Additionally, the amendment only applies to theft of prescription drugs.
“If they steal a candy bar, it doesn’t apply. If they steal cigarettes, it doesn’t apply. If they steal a cassette tape, it doesn’t apply,” Young said.
The Recorder’s attempts to reach Young through his media contact listed on the Indiana Senate Republicans website went unanswered, but the senator’s comments to the committee shed light on his motivations behind the bill.
“In Marion County, we’ve had a severe problem with illegal drugs, prescription drugs and heroin. … That’s really a disgrace for all of us. Marion County leads the country in prescription drug thefts,” he said, adding that the majority of the county’s record-high number of criminal homicides in 2016 were drug-related.
Young’s hope is that the potential for harsher punishment would be a deterrent for juveniles, who he says are sometimes paid to rob pharmacies on behalf of adult drug dealers.
“These drug dealers know that if they go in and rob a pharmacy, they’re going to go to prison and have a lot of time to serve. So what they do is, they get a juvenile,” he said.
“Currently, the juveniles won’t get that much time. We want these juveniles to use a scale of balance. We want them to understand, is it more important that I go in and get $1,500 to steal these drugs, versus, I may have to go to prison. I’m hoping their scale will tip to the side of, ‘I’m not going to do this. It’s not worth it.’”
The committee passed the bill to a second reading with a 6–4 vote, despite hearing from several individuals and organizations who oppose the measure.
Critics of the bill argue that, among many other shortcomings, the proposed amendment doesn’t take into account the special circumstances involving juvenile offenders. For one, adolescents’ brains aren’t fully developed and therefore can’t necessarily use the “scale of balance” to which Young referred.
A 2013 book published by the National Academies Press titled Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach says adolescents struggle to make responsible decisions in emotionally charged situations, and youth ages 13–17 are more sensitive to rewards, thus more likely to make wrong decisions based on expected benefits. A 2011 study from the National Institute of Mental Health says the adolescent brain doesn’t fully develop to look like the adult brain until individuals reach their early 20s.
“There is a reason we have the juvenile court system,” said Tanya Bell, the president of Indiana Black Expo, who also serves on the Public Policy Committee of The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative (CPLI), a network of individuals and organizations working to reform policies that contribute to the criminalization of children.
“When you have youth who are immature and transitioning into adulthood, the juvenile court system has the support, the resources to treat our youth. They’re there to protect us from a public safety standpoint, but they’re also there to serve our youth. This is where this type of crime should be adjudicated. Not in adult court.”
JauNae Hanger, a civil right attorney and president of CPLI, says the immaturity of adolescents’ brains also makes them more amenable to rehabilitation. In other words, if the situation is handled appropriately, juvenile offenders are more likely than adults to end up back on a straight path. With a different approach, a different outcome is more likely.
A 2008 study from the U.S. Department of Justice — Juvenile transfer laws: An effective deterrent to delinquency? — says that youth transferred from the juvenile court system to adult court are 34–77 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a crime than youth who are kept in the juvenile criminal justice system.
Hanger said beyond upping the risks of re-offending, moving youth to adult court contributes to a host of lifelong problems.
“If you’re tried in adult court, sentenced in adult court, those records are public,” she said. “That can create lifelong barriers to employment, education, housing. We’re really saddling children with a lot of obstacles.”
Hanger said being in adult prisons presents safety issues for youth, citing a report from the Campaign for Youth Justice. That report says youth housed in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth in juvenile facilities, and youth in adult facilities are at the greatest risk of sexual victimization. In 2005, only 1 percent of all jail inmates in the U.S. were under the age of 18, but they accounted for 21 percent of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence.
Bell and Hanger both voiced concerns about the disproportionate impact the amendment would have on minority youth, and the report from the Campaign for Youth Justice includes research backing up those concerns. Citing the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the report says youth of color are overrepresented at all stages of the juvenile justice system, especially African-American youth.
On the plus side, Bell said, Sen. Young agreed to remove a “more concerning” portion of the bill — the proposed removal of the words “if charged as a felony” relating to charges of carrying a handgun without a license and other firearm-related offenses.
“That’s a huge victory, but there are still issues as we look at the pharmacy portion of the bill,” she said. Bell does agree that something needs to be done about pharmacy robberies in Indiana, but Young’s proposal is not the answer.
“I understand we have a concern with pharmacy robberies. I understand totally that we have a concern with the drug epidemic right now, but this just is not the solution to the problem,” she said. “If anything, we need to focus our efforts on the adults that are involved. This is just not the solution.”
Hanger expressed a similar view.
“I have talked to public defenders, and there’s no doubt that pharmacy robbery is a problem statewide, but these kids are intermediaries. They’re not the ones initiating this crime,” Hanger said. “If we really want to get to the problem, we need to get to the people who’re setting these kids up. I’m not saying you don’t need to deal with the kids; you do, but in a developmentally responsible manner.”