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June 14, 2013

Prison sentence of 12-year-old prompts new juvenile sentencing law

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.

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