The Swinging Pendulum of Judicial Discretion

Question:  Should there be more oversight and data gathered about dispositions imposed across the state in juvenile cases?

Over the last few years at both the federal and state level, there has been a call for movement away from mandatory minimum sentencing and some of the habitual offender laws in favor of more judicial discretion during sentencing.  In juvenile matters, the court has practically unfettered discretion as to the disposition of the child, except the ability to commit status offenders to the Indiana Department of Correction, in general.

As the pendulum swings towards more freedom in sentencing, it is prudent to take a moment to remember that part of the justification for the mandatory sentencing movement was because of the wide variety of sentences and dispositions that judges impose for similarly situated defendants.  An overview of the policy arguments in criminal courts is available from the United States Sentencing Commission, Policy Reviews About Mandatory Minimum Penalties.

In Indiana juvenile courts, there are no standards set by law or by policy that mandate graduated sanctions or any other approach other than those factors set out by Indiana Code 31-37-18-6, which states:

“[i]f consistent with the safety of the community and the best interest of the child, the juvenile court shall enter a dispositional decree that:

  1. is: (A) in the least restrictive (most family like) and most appropriate setting available; and (B) close to the parents’ home, consistent with the best interest and special needs of the child;
  2. least interferes with family autonomy;
  3. is least disruptive of family life;
  4. imposes the least restraint on the freedom of the child and the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian; and
  5. provides a reasonable opportunity for participation by the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian.”

Therefore, to justify placement of the child in a more restrictive setting, the court must simply making findings that such a placement is necessary for the safety of the community and is in the best interest of the child.

The actions of the court is generally shielded from public view, often more by custom rather than by function of the law, in cases that involved a felony allegation.  There is no dataset easily accessible to the public of the disposition options used by the juvenile courts.  There are few juvenile delinquency cases appealed, which would put the actions of the juvenile court subject to review by the appellate courts.  Since January 1, 2014, the Indiana Supreme Court has issued published opinions on one juvenile delinquency cases.  The Indiana Court of Appeals has issued four published opinions on juvenile delinquency cases in the same period.

See I.C. 31-39-1 for detailed information about the confidentiality of juvenile court records and I.C. 31-36-6 for detailed information about the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings.



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