Tales from the juvenile injustice files

RiShawn Biddle

Expresso, June 19, 2006

By the time Lacy -- the Star doesn't identify juvenile offenders -- appeared before Superior Court magistrate Beth Jansen last May, her mother Nancy was desperate for any help. The kind of assistance lent by the court, however, wasn't exactly meeting the spirit or the letter of the state's juvenile and criminal court laws.

The fifteen-year-old was allegedly getting poor grades in school, had unsuccessfully falsified her report card and was running around with a 34-year-old man. So when she arrived home one May morning after spending the night with her alleged lover, Nancy called the Indianapolis Police Department to take her out of the home. By the time officers arrested her, Lacy, mad at Nancy's fiance for unplugging her stereo, had knocked it down along with the bookshelf and the speakers.

As far as Nancy was concerned, "[Lacy] needs some kind of help and I can't help her at home at this time," according to the transcript of the initial hearing obtained by the Star Editorial Board. And Magistrate Jansen agreed: First she branded Lacy a flight risk and detained her at the juvenile detention center for a 15-day stint. Later that month, Jansen found Lacy guilty of criminal mischief, sentencing her to probation with home-based treatment. Said Jansen, who according to the transcript, threatened to send Lacy to the state Girl's School if she violated probation: "[Nancy] will have a lot more power now."

The problem with Jansen's help? That under state law, a child (or an adult, for that matter) can only be charged with criminal mischief if they damage at least $250 worth of another person's property. Nancy admitted in court that the stereo and bookshelf belonged to Lacy, given to her by Lacy's father and Nancy herself. So Gregory should have dismissed the charge when asked to do so by Christopher Chui, Lacy's public defender.

She didn't. The case proceeded anyway.

Jansen's decision didn't pass muster with a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals, which reversed the judgment in an unpublished decision handed down this past April. It was quite clear, according to Senior Judge Betty Barteau, that prosecutors "failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, or otherwise, that the property damaged by [Lindsay] was the property of another person."

Given reports over the last two months, it's difficult to say if Lacy could have gotten any real help anyway. The probation officer preparing the pre-dispositional report recommending probation for the teen did little in the way of any psychiatric analysis outside of noting Nancy's statement that Lacy didn't have a history of "wetting the bed, starting fires, or cruelty to animals." Chances are that the probation officer wouldn't have been equipped to do so anyway.