Juvenile injustice

In some Ohio counties, including Lucas County, too many juveniles are tried in adult court


More than 210 Ohio juveniles — far too many — were certified to stand trial as adults in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Equally disturbing, the figures suggest vast differences in how courts are handling such cases from county to county.

Lucas County, with 15 juveniles certified to stand trial as adults two years ago, had almost as many such cases as Cuyahoga County’s 18. Yet Cuyahoga County has almost three times as many people as Lucas County. And Hamilton County, with less than twice the population of Lucas County, led the state with 64 juvenile certifications in 2011.

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Ohio law requires youths to be tried as adults for certain crimes, but many of these certifications are discretionary. Typically, a hearing to bind a juvenile over to adult court is sought because prosecutors believe a crime was harsh enough to warrant time in prison instead of a juvenile jail.

Among other things, courts consider the mental health, home circumstances, age, school reports, and delinquency history of an offender. The disparity in the frequency of such transfers suggests that policies and practices vary greatly among Ohio’s 88 counties.

It’s time for the Ohio Supreme Court to look seriously at how courts are transferring juveniles to the adult system and to determine whether changes are warranted. A growing body of law demands that the criminal justice system treat juveniles and adults differently.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole. Until then, Michigan’s barbaric juvenile lifer law forced judges to give offenders as young as 14 — when they could not legally drive or buy cigarettes — the maximum adult penalty in the state for first-degree murder, with no chance for parole.

The decision by a conservative Supreme Court followed similar rulings, including banning the death penalty for juveniles. High-court justices have understood that children and adults have different standards of legal accountability.

Juveniles don’t have the same legal rights and responsibilities as adults because they lack the maturity and judgment to handle them. Nor should they, as a rule, suffer the same consequences.

Brain imaging research shows what every parent knows: Teenage brains are more impulsive and unstable than adult brains — even without the abuse and neglect that many young offenders have endured. Prosecuting youths in adult criminal courts subjects them to the same sentencing guidelines as adults, reduces chances for meaningful rehabilitation, and increases recidivism.

Adult convictions can also saddle juveniles with lifetime barriers to jobs, housing, and education. Treatment options are more available in the juvenile system, including reporting centers, substance abuse services, and family programs.

Sending youths to adult jails and prisons also increases their risk of violence and sexual assault. Youths of color are far more likely to be prosecuted as adults.

For these reasons, politicians and policy makers should reduce the number of juveniles in Ohio who are prosecuted in adult courts and limit their placement in adult jails and prisons.