Marshawn Wolley: Sending 12-year-olds to adult court is ridiculous

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Marshawn WolleyThe Indiana Senate has seen fit to treat 12-year-olds as adults, allowing for children who commit violent crimes to be waived to the adult criminal justice system.

This isn’t new. Indiana is ranked sixth in the nation in trying children as adults.

But it’s just wrong.

Even if we don’t believe a 12-year-old who commits a violent crime is a victim of something, we at a minimum know that a 12-year-old’s brain is still developing ideas like justice and is still improving the ability to apply logic to situations.

And Senate Bill 449 will disproportionately impact black and Latino children.

According to The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative, 70% of children directly filed into the adult criminal justice system are children of color. The data also shows that 77% of the children waived to the adult system are children of color (that means black and Latino).

According to the initiative, children held in an adult facilities are 9 times more likely to commit suicide. They are 4.3 times more likely to be sexually abused in the adult facilities versus the juvenile facilities. But even if you are heartless and don’t care about the welfare of black and Latino kids, this is just bad public policy.

Consider that in 2019, according to the initiative, 58% of children who were found guilty of crimes were back in the community within a year. In the actual adjudication of cases last year, 14% of children who were charged had their charges outright dismissed. But this can’t just be about the numbers.

I know our kids are dealing with a lot of things most adults couldn’t handle. A few years ago, as part of the Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League, a few young professionals and I visited the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center once a month. We talked to the young people at the facility about their future. We discussed dreams and helped them think through actions plans for achieving them. But we also listened to their stories intently to inform our own policy advocacy agenda.

I’ll never forget speaking with young people and hearing them explain why they carry guns.

As a black man in this city, I have been losing black male friends to gun violence since I was a child. But still, hearing a young man say, “I have to carry a gun or I could be killed,” made me pause.

Last year, we had 15 people under the age of 18 killed in gun violence. In the last 4 years, we have lost 36 people under 18.

Last year, 411 black people were shot. In our neighborhoods. On our streets. In front of women and other children and senior citizens.

There were 132 black male shooting victims between the ages of 20 and 29 last year—and 86 black male shooting victims under the age of 20. In comparison, 38 white males, one Asian and no Latino males under the age of 29 were shot.

Given the trauma our kids are experiencing in our community and the prospect of placing our children in a prison system meant for adults, I have to ask the question: How did 31 adults in the Indiana Senate arrive at the decision that it’s OK to treat a 12-year-old like an adult?

Societies are judged ultimately by how they treat the most vulnerable among them.

SB 449 is a step back for Indiana. And it’s cruel.•


Wolley is a lecturer, columnist and diversity and inclusion consultant. Send comments to

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2 thoughts on “Marshawn Wolley: Sending 12-year-olds to adult court is ridiculous

  1. Quote: How did 31 adults in the Indiana Senate arrive at the decision that it’s OK to treat a 12-year-old like an adult?

    They logically arrived at that conclusion by noting that the 12-year-old committed an adult-level crime. That is not to say the juvenile should be incarcerated in adult facilities, but the punishment should be the same regardless of age. A person killed by a 12-year-old is just as dead as one killed by a 30-year-old.

    1. Bob, the court system and the justice department do not differentiate crimes based on the victim’s experience. The justice system differentiates murder by first, second, and third degrees, each denoting a different degree of motivation, forethought, and planning. Its safe to say that even the smartest 12 year old can’t share the same presence of mind as most 30 year old people. We’re still learning more about the brain and thought, but we know the brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25. Its unethical, its immoral, and our society will suffer if we continue to try a children as an adults. Our justice system is punitive, its not rehabilitative and our society at large does not punish 12 year olds the same way it charges 18 year olds. Would you give a 12 year old drinking ticket if you found him drunk? No. Would you give an 18 year old a drinking ticket if you found them drunk? Yes.