INDIANAPOLIS -- The 13-year-old student accused of shooting his teacher and a classmate at a Noblesville middle school last month will be tried in the juvenile system – a “mysterious phenomenon” for most, according to a juvenile court judge who walked RTV6 through the process.
Judge Geoffrey Gaither has been a magistrate judge in Marion County Juvenile Court since 1995. While he declined to comment on the Noblesville case specifically, he agreed to describe the workings of juvenile court, which are rarely reported on due to privacy laws and a general journalistic aversion to identifying juvenile victims or suspects.
“The juvenile system is very different from the adult system in very specific ways,” Gaither said. “The first of which is the language: we say delinquent offenses, and not crimes. We say true findings, and not convictions. We say disposition, and not sentencing. We say detention, and not jail.”
The juvenile system also has much more focus on the child’s health and wellbeing, even though they are accused of wrongdoing.
“Our overriding standard, by statute and by practice, is, ‘What’s in the child’s best interest?’” Gaither said. “We’re not primarily about punishment. We’re very invested in improving outcomes for children.”
While juvenile suspects go through the normal intake process of photographing and fingerprinting, Gaither said they have an additional step known as a “risk assessment instrument,” which helps the probation department determine whether it’s safe for the juvenile to be released, or whether they need to be detained until the next hearing.
The risk assessment attempts to quantify both the danger the juvenile suspect poses to others if released, as well as the danger that the juvenile him or herself could face if not held in detention. That includes the danger of continued child or sexual abuse, as well as the danger of antisocial behavior.
On Monday, the suspect in the Noblesville shooting will appear in Hamilton County Court for a delinquency hearing. The hearing begins similarly to the initial hearing an adult might face. Like an adult, the charges will be read to the juvenile suspect. The juvenile will then be read his or her rights, and a public defender will be appointed if a private attorney hasn’t been hired.
The Noblesville shooting suspecting faces 11 counts, ranging from attempted murder and battery by means of a deadly weapon to possession of a knife on school property. Because of the suspect’s age, and because none of the injuries were fatal, prosecutors said Indiana law prohibited them from requesting the case be waived to adult court.
The juvenile suspect will then face a detention hearing, which proceeds differently than in adult court. While adult defendants face a variable bond schedule depending upon the severity of the charges against them, juvenile courts determine whether to detain or release respondents – the juvenile court word for defendants – based on a number of factors, including the risk-assessment conducted during intake.
“Now we have what’s called a detention hearing,” Gaither said. “Quite frankly, almost always the State will ask for the child to be detained. We usually expect attorneys or parents to argue that the child should be allowed to go home, with conditions.”
Those conditions could be GPS monitoring, home confinement, supervised released or parent-monitored curfew. The court could also decide to release the juvenile to a therapeutic foster community, if releasing them to their home is deemed inappropriate.
Gaither declined to speculate about the Noblesville case, but said in his experience, juveniles accused of violent crimes were more likely to be detained pending trial.
“Children who are charged with serious violent felonies… I would be surprised if they went home,” Gaither said.
Ahead of Monday’s delinquency hearing, Indiana Speaker of the House Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) has said he wants to review current state law covering when juveniles may be charged as adults.
"Given the heinous acts that led to a teacher and student being seriously harmed, I think it's important for us to take a thoughtful look at our criminal code and whether changes to the law are appropriate,” Bosma said.
The victims in the shooting, teacher Jason Seaman and 13-year-old Ella Whistler, are recovering from their injuries. Whistler, who was shot seven times, was expected to remain at Riley Hospital for Children “for the foreseeable future.”
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