By State Sen. Erin Houchin
Last spring, a 13-year-old student at Noblesville West Middle School opened fire in his classroom with the intent to murder. He shot classmate Ella Whistler seven times, including in the face, neck, hand, and chest, and his teacher, Jason Seaman, three times – leaving both with lifelong physical and emotional pain. Because of the bravery of Mr. Seaman, the miracle of modern medicine, and the grace of God, no one was killed. Ella and Mr. Seaman miraculously survived. However, make no mistake, the young perpetrator’s goal was to commit mass murder. During court proceedings, video recorded by him was shown where he stated, “I’m not killing myself. I have to take other people’s lives before I take mine.”
Unfortunately, due to current law, because this student was 13 and was unsuccessful in committing murder, he could not be tried in adult court, and his sentence will be over when he turns 18. In a few short years, he will be released back into society. If one of his victims had died, a judge would have been able to choose whether to try the case in an adult court.
This legislative session, I authored Senate Bill 279, which would allow judges to waive 12- and 13-year-olds to adult court for attempted murder. The judge would have full discretion on whether to do so, and the decision would be based on all available information regarding the crime and the perpetrator as well as what the judge finds to be in the best interest of the defendant and the safety of the community.
The language in this bill, which has now been amended into House Bill 1114, is not a major policy shift. Judges can already waive cases for these individuals to adult court for murder, and attempted murder should be no different. In addition, the law already allows for juveniles aged 14 and older to be waived for attempted murder. The only differences in this case are that the perpetrator was not yet 14 and his victims did not die. However, since I introduced this bill, there has been misinformation spread about Indiana’s juvenile justice system and how my legislation would affect it. I’m here to set the record straight.
Whether a defendant is tried in an adult court or a juvenile court, the services received and where the juvenile is housed remain the same. It is the policy of the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) that all juveniles be held in juvenile facilities and receive educational and rehabilitative services. Juveniles are not housed in adult IDOC facilities.
The important difference between being convicted in a juvenile court and an adult court is the length of the sentence. If a 12- or 13-year-old is convicted in a juvenile court – no matter how heinous their crime – their sentence ends when they turn 18. If a juvenile is tried in an adult court, however, the sentence could extend longer.
When the juvenile turns 18, the sentencing court is notified and may choose to hold a hearing to suspend the remainder of the sentence if they feel the juvenile has been rehabilitated. If the court believes the juvenile is still a danger to society, only then is the offender sent to an adult prison to serve the remainder of their sentence.
Another criticism of this legislation has come from some of my fellow legislators, who claim this change would disproportionately hurt African American youth. However, only 72 juvenile cases total were waived to adult court in 2018 – only seven of them for murder – and the largest share of the juveniles waived were white.
Safeguards exist to protect juvenile offenders, and Indiana attempts to rehabilitate those who end up in our justice system. However, if juveniles have attempted murder and have not been rehabilitated by the time they are 18, it is our duty to keep them out of our communities to ensure the safety and welfare of all Hoosiers.
The Noblesville school shooting left physical and emotional scars on innocent people – and an entire community – that will never be fully healed. We must make this simple change in Indiana law to ensure individuals, even as young as 12 or 13, who commit such heinous acts are adequately held accountable for their actions so no other families have to live in fear of their assailants being released back into society after just a few short years.
Guidelines are in place to protect the juvenile throughout the sentencing process – we must also ensure protections exist for society. It is clear we must close this loophole in Indiana law to prevent such weak sentences for horrible crimes like this one from occurring again and to ensure justice may be fully served for victims, their families, and our communities.
Erin Houchin is a Republican who represents Senate District 47 in southern Indiana.