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Paul’s Law: Revised Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

Can people change? If an adult commits murder, that person is tried in court and if found guilty, will go to prison. What if a child commits murder? Has true justice been served if that child is found guilty in an adult court and sentenced to twice as much prison time as he or she has even been alive? Or are a person’s developmental years dynamic enough to suggest a child felon can go on to lead a productive, happy life?

Paul’s Law, which passed in 2013, addresses that very issue. Paul Gingerich was 12 years old when he was an accomplice in the murder of his friend’s stepfather 45 miles outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The plan was to skip town after the fatal shooting, but the kids didn’t make it that far and were instead sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now, more than five years after the incident, the case has inspired juvenile justice reform.

Paul’s Law was built around the idea that there are several impressionable years during childhood, and that juveniles deserve therapy, educational opportunities, and a second chance at a good life. Under the law, judges have the opportunity to review progress made by young offenders. Gingerich himself, now 18, is currently looking at the possibility of a significantly lighter sentence, which includes the opportunity to move back in with his mother in a few months. The revised sentence outlines a few years of electronic monitoring, as well as 10 years of probation, but essentially tries to ensure that Gingerich, and those children who follow him in the system and demonstrate improved behavior, will get to spend their adult life out in the world.

Child welfare advocates remain hopeful, claiming that this is the direction the juvenile justice system needs to continue to improve. However, to keep momentum going, the system has to fully embrace the notion that children are not the same as adults. Adolescent development research strongly suggests distinct differences, not only in behavioral tendencies such as risk taking, but also in their unique ability to change. If the justice system fully accepts the scientific theory that children can somewhat easily be rehabilitated, then Paul’s Law is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) has nearly 50 men and women under observation who were successfully reformed after being incarcerated for murder as children, and they see legislation like Paul’s Law to be a light of hope for a broader effort in this country to recognize and take action against a flawed criminal justice system as a whole. Other jurisdictions are also experimenting with different approaches to the treatment of children in criminal court, such as a Connecticut proposal to raise the cutoff age for juvenile court to 21.

If you have any questions about this topic or if your child has been charged with a crime, you can find out more by discussing it with one of the juvenile criminal defense attorneys at Church, Langdon, Lopp, Banet Law. We have years of experience helping people and we can help you. Based in New Albany, Indiana, we proudly serve communities throughout Kentucky and Indiana including, but not limited to, Jefferson County, KY; Floyd County, IN; Clark County, IN; and Harrison County, IN. Contact us by calling (812) 725-8224 or by using our online form.

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