FROM THE PLAYHOUSE TO THE COURTHOUSE: INDIANA’S NEED FOR A STATUTORY MINIMUM AGE FOR JUVENILE DELINQUENCY ADJUDICATION

TRAVIS WATSON, J.D., Summa Cum Laude, 2020, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law; B.S. in Business, 2015, Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

How young is too young for a child to be arrested? How young is too young for a child to be placed in a juvenile detention facility? How young is too young for a child to be subject to the juvenile justice system or labeled a juvenile delinquent? These are questions states across the nation and countries around the world have been asking themselves for decades. Indiana is one of twenty-eight states that does not have a minimum age threshold that a child must meet in order for the juvenile justice system to have jurisdiction. Due to Indiana’s lack of minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction, a child under the age of eighteen, no matter how young, has the possibility of becoming a juvenile delinquent and may be subject to the juvenile justice system.

Indiana’s juvenile justice system once had a rehabilitative focus that looked out for the child’s best interest and needs. Although the juvenile justice system’s goal is to “ensure that children within the juvenile justice system are treated as persons in need of care, protection, treatment, and rehabilitation,” there is now a more punitive approach. In Indiana, a juvenile delinquent is a child who “commits an act that would be an offense if committed by an adult.” Because Indiana only defines an upper age jurisdictional limit of eighteen and no lower age limit establishing a minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction, a child of any age under eighteen may be subject to Indiana’s juvenile justice system. This includes children who commit a delinquent act or even a status offense, such as truancy, running away from home, a fireworks violation, or even habitual disobedience of a parent or guardian. Further, a child who commits certain status offenses have the possibility of being placed in an Indiana’s Department of Corrections detention facility.

Twenty-two states, however, have laws that establish a minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction to protect young children from the juvenile justice system. These lower limits are set by each state through statutes, and the minimum age limits span from six to twelve. In recent years, several states have proposed legislation to either raise the current minimum age or establish one. In 2018, Massachusetts raised its minimum age from seven to twelve. In 2019, California established its statutory minimum age at twelve.

Indiana is no stranger to young children being arrested, processed through the juvenile justice system, and placed in a detention center. For example, a nine- year-old child with autism who was a victim of playground bullying tried to defend himself and consequently was handcuffed and arrested at his elementary school. This child was brought to the police station, charged with battery and criminal mischief, and detained briefly in the juvenile detention facility.

In 2017, sixty of Indiana’s ninety-two counties had 381 preliminary inquiries completed for children under the age of twelve and seven inquiries completed for children under the age of eight. These preliminary inquiries take place when a prosecuting attorney has reason to believe a child committed a delinquent act and the attorney instructs the intake officer to make a finding to determine whether or not the child should be charged. In addition, between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, thirteen of Indiana’s nineteen juvenile detention centers held children between the ages of eight and eleven.

Indiana is not the only state with cases involving young children in this context. Many other states without minimum age legislation process very young children into the state’s juvenile justice system, often by arrest. Florida, like Indiana, does not have legislation specifying a minimum age for delinquency adjudication. In recent years, several young children have entered into Florida’s juvenile justice system through arrests. This includes a group of second graders who were arrested for punching a boy while trying to steal his bicycle; a six-year- old child who was arrested for throwing rocks at cars; and a four-year-old, not yet in kindergarten, arrested with a group of children ages six, eight, nine, and eleven for felony burglary and misdemeanor criminal mischief for breaking into and vandalizing a neighbor’s shed. These types of incidents might happen everywhere, but arrests and processing in the juvenile justice system happen in states that lack minimum age laws protecting young children.

This Note argues that Indiana should pass statutory minimum age legislation that establishes a minimum age limit of twelve for a child to be adjudicated through Indiana’s juvenile justice system. However, if the charge is that of a sexual or violent nature, then the minimum age should be lowered to ten. If a child under the minimum age commits what would be a delinquent act, then the case should be handled through a Child in Need of Services (“CHINS”) proceeding. A CHINS proceeding would investigate both the parents and the child to determine the appropriate way to handle the case outside of the juvenile justice system. This will more appropriately carry out the intended purpose of the Indiana juvenile justice system to “ensure that children within the juvenile justice system are treated as persons in need of care, protection, treatment, and rehabilitation.” Part I of this Note explains the history of the juvenile justice system and the changes it has undergone throughout the decades. Part II looks at states’ upper age limits and states’ lower age limits with further detail on the differing approaches to lower age limits. Part III argues why Indiana should have a statutory minimum age for a child to be subject to the juvenile justice system. Part IV proposes a solution for Indiana by establishing a statutory minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction and expanding Indiana’s CHINS statutes to allow for children under the jurisdictional minimum age who commit an offense to still receive the help and treatment they need. [Read entire Article here].