Edgerrin Hoover was 13 years old when he spent 94 days in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Facility.
He was confined in a cell, away from his family and friends. Reading books was the only way to pass the time.
“No one's mindset is set to be sitting in a cell, but especially a 13 year old to be sitting inside of a cell,” said Hoover, who had been detained for a probation violation. “Yeah, my mind wasn't ready for that.”
He was kept with older teenagers, and said he felt like law enforcement saw him as an adult.
“I'm just a kid in my eyes, but not to everyone else,” said Hoover, who is now 18.
Starting this month, some preteen youth will no longer face the impacts of isolation that have affected people like Hoover for years. A new state law prevents detaining children under 12 years old. Previously, there was no minimum age requirement in place. Age limits for detention and prosecution of juveniles vary across the country. Indiana is one of several states that recently set minimum age requirements within the juvenile justice system.
But some experts and advocates argue that 12 is still too young for a child to be detained by law enforcement, or even charged. Keeping pre- and young teens locked up can lead to a cascade of negative impacts, research shows – from compounding mental health problems and cognitive delays, to being at greater risk to not earn a high school diploma.
Is 12 still too young?
The new minimum age requirement is part of a juvenile reform package passed into law earlier this year. The legislation resulted from years of discussions led by the Indiana Juvenile Justice Reform Taskforce, which the state’s Commission on Improving the Status of Children created in 2020.
The group studied many issues impacting youth due to a mishmash of local and county policies. An analysis found that in 2019, more than 160 cases resulting in detention were for youth ages 12 and under. Sixty percent of those children were detained for misdemeanor violations.
In addition to not detaining children under 12, the new law, HEA 1359, puts other reforms into effect, such as using risk assessment tools to divert youth away from detention and collecting better data to track children in the system.
While some national and local experts say they are pleased there is now a minimum age in Indiana, many argue that the age of 12 is still too young to detain a child.
“If you look internationally, right, the international recommendation is that no young person under the age of 14 should even come into contact with the legal system or face sort of a carceral response,” said Alyson Clements, director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “So they shouldn't be arrested, they shouldn't be detained, they shouldn't be prosecuted, and certainly shouldn't be committed.”
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes 14 as the minimum age that children should encounter the justice system, which includes being prosecuted or detained.
Local advocate JauNae Hanger, director of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, agrees.
“At some point, there is a difference, and it's developmental, and you just can't get around it. It's not age appropriate,” Hanger said. “It's not developmentally appropriate.”
What are the impacts of detaining young children?
Detention causes a wide variety of implications for youth, and experts say it sometimes does more harm than good. Studies have found spending time in a facility can increase a youth's chance of re-offending, worsens their mental health problems, and leads those with special needs to drop out of school.
Juvenile detention centers are essentially prisons and an environment not developmentally appropriate for 12 year olds, Hanger said.
“They feel like adult facilities, they're sterile, they’re cells,” Hanger said, noting that detention can look different depending on the facility.
When children are detained, they are separated from their family and friends and pulled out of school.
Hoover, who was in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Facility five years ago, said when he was detained, he regularly kept in touch with his family, speaking to them on the phone multiple times a week. But he said the majority of the other detained children did not have that same support.
“A lot of people don't have a loving structure, and that's why a lot of kids are locked up,” he said. “A lot of people go in there, they don't get no phone calls, they're depressed and sad all day.”
How does detainment affect the brain?
Hoover said around the time he got detained, he didn’t fully understand the implications of his actions. It was also hard on his mental health while he was in detention.
“I feel like I was going crazy,” Hoover said. “Because, like, I've never sat in a room isolated by myself not being able to talk to someone.”
Involvement in the juvenile justice system, including detention, has lasting effects on a child’s brain development, experts say. Many children who encounter the system have cognitive delays, which may make them mentally younger than their biological age.
Dr. Ann Lagges, a licensed clinical psychologist with Indiana University Health, and has been doing competency evaluations for the Marion County Juvenile Court for 15 years. It's complicated, she said, because doctors need to take these delays into account as they figure out the needs of individual children.
“It’s common for kids who are involved in juvenile court to fall below age norms in one or more areas like academic performance, language abilities. Some have more global delays, like intellectual disabilities,” she said.
Detainment has significant impacts on a child’s mental health, Lagges said, it can cause them to later reoffend and encounter substance abuse issues. Additionally, Lagges said the human brain continues to develop until the age of 25, particularly the part of the brain that aids in rational decision making.
“One of the hallmarks of that is the ability to inhibit the impulse to do something that seems pleasurable in the moment,” she said. “So this is some of why even with really bright adolescents and young adults will sometimes see them make decisions that don't seem to make sense.”
Hanger said for these reasons alone children especially should not be detained.
“If we're talking about children with a lack of cognitive development, it really does seem inhumane,” she said.
What alternatives are there?
Advocates agree there are more beneficial alternatives to detention. Many say more work is required to prevent youth from encountering the system at all. One method is focusing on the root causes of what leads pre-teens to offend, such poverty, education access and mental health supports.
“I think that we have to get into the mindset away from incarceration, we have to figure out how do we get to work with these young people before they get to a point where incarceration would be necessary?” said Brandon Randall, director of engagement at VOICES, a nonprofit that supports vulnerable youth and their families with community services like life skills training and mentorship programs.
Nancy Wever, who leads the state’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, said it’s also important to see more than just two possible answers when a youth is arrested: going home or detention. She said there are other ways to intervene that allow a child to stay in their community.
“There’s likely things that we can do in the middle, that provide a level of supervision that the community is comfortable with, so that youth can remain in their community,” Wever said.
She said day reporting, curfew checks and establishing mentors are just some of the alternatives.
After Hoover served three months in the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center, he had the option to return home. However, he said his mother knew he wasn’t ready.
Instead, he was sent to Transitions Academy, a residential facility for youth. At first, Hoover said he was angry at this mother for sending him there. But over time, he said his outlook changed. He said Transitions used a more therapeutic approach. He met with a therapist and talked about how he ended up in detention.
Hoover’s father died when he was 6 years old. He talked with his therapist at Transitions frequently about not having a father figure.
“It was just a defining key,” he said. “Still to this day. I've never actually grieved about my dad.”
Experts agree the issue of minimum age needs to be continually reexamined as the new law goes into effect. Some are already planning more legislation.
Hanger says her group is working to establish a minimum age for prosecution in Indiana, which currently does not exist. She wants to see the age set at 14, to align with international standards.
“Our hope is that we can get to the point where we have a recommendation and then just sharing and seeing if we can get enough support to go forward with something, maybe even in the next legislative session,” she said.
Contact WFYI criminal justice reporter Katrina Pross at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @katrina_pross.
Pross is a Corps Member of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.