COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld a judge's discretion in imposing a "blended sentence'' against a dangerous juvenile, threatening adult prison time if he doesn't get his act together in youth detention.
The court found that allowing the judge to make such a decision after a juvenile conviction does not violate the U.S. and Ohio constitutions because a jury's findings hand the judge the factors he must consider when weighing whether to impose such a sentence.
Then-state Sen. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), now a U.S. congressman, sponsored the law that passed in 2000.
"I remember Chief Justice [Thomas] Moyer, a member of the criminal sentencing commission, saying that with juveniles coming into the system we no longer know whether we're dealing with Dennis the Menace or Billy the Kid,'' he said. "We wanted to hold juveniles more accountable, protect the public, and compensate victims, but also give juvenile court judges another tool.''
The law allowed a judge for the first time to tack on an adult prison term that could be served when the juvenile leaves the youth detention system at the age of 21. The adult sentence would be imposed only if it is later determined that the juvenile's actions while in the detention system demonstrated he remains a danger to society.
"The state is committed to the mission of juvenile courts and should be open to innovation that may help the system reach its important objectives,'' Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote in the decision. "Early data indicate that the type of blended-sentencing system employed by Ohio has worked well in Minnesota.''
The challenge to the law was brought by a Franklin County juvenile who, at the age of 15, fired a gun during a fight involving a number of youths. A 16-year-old girl was killed and another youth was wounded.
While acquitted of murder and aggravated murder charges, the "serious youthful offender,'' identified only by initials in the Supreme Court's ruling, was convicted of felonious assault with a firearm.
In 2006, the judge imposed a blended sentence adding a possible six years in adult prison after he leaves the juvenile system at the age of 21.
That adult sentence has yet to be imposed, so the high court sidestepped a separate question of whether a judge can weigh factors independent of a jury when it comes to increasing adult penalties.
"The blended sentencing scheme, where a juvenile court can impose up to life imprisonment in an adult facility upon a minor, does not bear any resemblance to the traditional juvenile justice system where the focus was upon the treatment and rehabilitation of the juvenile and not the punishment thereof, and the court's jurisdiction terminated when the juvenile became 21 years old,'' wrote the juvenile's attorney, John Keeling, in court filings.
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