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INDIANAPOLIS — At the age of 18, Dontia Dyson went to the Marion County Jail for disorderly conduct and distinctly remembers the major shock of being incarcerated in the “most dangerous block” with much older adults.

“I was in a situation with some real-deal criminals and remember being a little scared for my life. A lot of people around me were way older than me and three times as big,” Dyson said. “I can’t imagine taking a kid as young as 12 and throwing them into the lion’s den like that.”

Under Senate Bill 368, children will no longer be in the “lion’s den” of adult jails, which Indiana code currently permits for those as young as 12 committing even minor offenses. Research has documented the negative side effects adult detention has on juveniles since jails lack the services, education and family contact necessarily for rehabilitation.

Dyson testified with three other Indianapolis men on behalf of Stand for Children, a nonprofit education advocacy group, on Tuesday. The bill, authored by state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, addresses three issues related to juvenile imprisonment: housing juveniles with adults, competency hearings and expunging minor offenses.

Tallian’s bill would allow misdemeanors committed by juveniles to be automatically expunged after one year, unless a judge determines otherwise. Proponents testified that this would help adults with juvenile records progress past mistakes to get jobs or join the military.

“I am strongly against charging a kid as an adult or carrying a kid’s mistake into adulthood and making them still pay for it,” Dyson said. “Kids have a future to secure and you can’t secure your future when you have your past holding you down. There are no second chances with this system.”

The bill still permits courts to charge and convict children as adults but minors must still be incarcerated in juvenile detention rather than adult jails.

Another aspect of the bill would allow the court to determine the child’s competency or ability to understand the trial proceedings — which current law doesn’t address. Courts shall presume children under 11 are incompetent unless shown otherwise.

The bill passed out of committee on a 6-1 vote and moves to be heard before the full Senate. Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, indicated she would sign on as second author.

Advocates pushed for the bill to keep federal funding and come into compliance with the federal 2018 Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which doesn’t permit housing juvenile offenders with adults. Otherwise Indiana could lose 20% to 40% of its funding under the Title II Formula Grants Program, at least $800,000.

The bill won’t go into effect immediately, though the federal deadline is Dec. 21 of this year, but rather go into effect sometime during the summer of 2022.

“I have sons coming up and daughters coming up — and I want them to have a chance. I don’t want to fear if they ever make a mistake that their lives will be over,” Dyson said. “While I hope that they don’t make (those mistakes), I want this system to improve for all the kids who will. No kid should be held back by a system that’s original purpose was to rehabilitate them.”

Whitney Downard is the CNHI state reporter for Indiana.

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