By MAUREEN HAYDEN
THE GOSHEN NEWS
INDIANAPOLIS — Three years ago, when 12-year-old Paul Henry Gingerich became the youngest person in Indiana ever sent to prison as an adult, his story gained international attention and sparked questions about whether children belong behind bars with grown-up offenders.
Gingerich, convicted of conspiring to murder a friend’s stepfather, remains in prison, awaiting a critical court hearing. But his case has already had a profound impact on how juveniles tried as adults may be punished.
In late April, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a provision that gives judges new sentencing options for children under 18 in the state’s criminal courts. It goes into effect July 1.
Among other things, it gives judges more discretion to keep those young offenders out of the adult prison system and to put them instead into juvenile detention facilities where they can be rehabilitated while serving their sentence.
Advocates for the new law included state prison officials who feared for Paul Gingerich’s safety when he was first sent to them in 2010 as an 80-pound, sixth-grader who’d never been in trouble.
“No good comes from putting a 12-year-old in an adult prison,” said Mike Dempsey, head of youth services for the Indiana Department of Correction.
In Indiana, children as young as 10 can tried as adults. Gingerich was 12 when he was arrested in the shooting death of 49-year-old Phillip Danner of Cromwell, along with Danner’s 15-year-old stepson. The defense argued Gingerich had been bullied into the crime by the older teen.
A psychiatrist who evaluated Gingerich said the boy wasn’t competent to stand trial as an adult. But a juvenile court judge rejected that opinion and declared both boys were fit to stand trial as adults. An appeals court has since thrown out that ruling.
For years, judges in Indiana have had few options for dealing with juveniles who’ve committed heinous crimes. They could keep them in the juvenile court system and order them locked up until they turn 18. Or they could send them into the criminal courts, where the juvenile would be tried and sentenced as an adult.
The new law creates another option called “dual sentencing,” that essentially allows a young criminal to be sentenced as both a juvenile and an adult.
It allows a judge to send a juvenile convicted as an adult into a state-run juvenile detention center for intensive supervision and treatment until the offender turns 18. Then, at 18, that offender’s adult prison sentence is re-assessed by a judge who has several options: Send the offender on to prison to serve the criminal sentence, send the offender into a community-based corrections program to transition back into society, or send the offender back home free.
Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council, said the law gives judges a new level of discretion in juvenile matters.
“The criminal justice system should never, ever treat a child like it treats an adult,” Cullen said. “This law recognizes that.”
Until the new law was passed, Indiana was only one of four states that didn’t have some version of dual sentencing, also called blended sentencing, for juveniles convicted of serious crimes.
Republican state Rep. Wendy McNamara, an Evansville school administrator who carried the legislation in the Indiana House, said the new law still provides punishment but recognizes that juveniles need to be treated differently than adult offenders.
“We’re not letting these kids off the hook,” McNamara said. “But the law also says we’re not going to lock them up and throw away the key.”
McNamara and other supporters of the new law were persuaded in part by DOC numbers that show most juveniles sent to the state’s prisons are out within five years.
“They’re kids growing up in prison, being exposed to and influenced by adults who’ve committed terrible and violent crimes,” Dempsey said. “The odds of them coming back out a better person aren’t good.”
Monica Foster, head of the Indiana Federal Community Defenders and Paul Gingerich’s attorney, hailed the new law as a breakthrough for juvenile justice in Indiana.
“There’s no point in making throwaway children,” Foster said. “When we send children into adult prisons, they’re just schooled by adult criminals on how to become better criminals.”
Whether the new law could apply to Gingerich remains to be seen. Last December, the Indiana Court of Appeals threw out the boy’s guilty plea and sentence, saying the juvenile court judge rushed when he waived the case to adult court.
The appellate court ordered a new hearing, scheduled for August, to determine if Gingerich should be retried in a juvenile court.