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Published: Wednesday, 2/11/2009

Ohio legal system gets poor marks for juvenile justice

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A recent report card of Ohio's juvenile justice system showed low marks in several areas.

Released by the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday, "Evaluating Juvenile Justice in Ohio: A Report Card" rated the system in five areas. The purpose was to show the public and those involved in the system how juvenile justice in Ohio could be better, said Robin Dahlberg, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

"A lot of these things we're commenting on really have public safety consequences in addition to constitutional consequences and human rights issues," she said.

The evaluation graded five issues: how many juveniles waive their rights to an attorney; how often juveniles are shackled while in court; how many juveniles are transferred to adult court; rates of juvenile detention and commitment; and the disproportionate numbers of minorities confined in the system.

Ms. Dahlberg said the study began in 2005 as a result of alarming numbers of Ohio juveniles waiving their rights to counsel.

She said the evaluation grew from there and shows the system is failing the state's children.

Statewide, the issues of juvenile certifications and rates of commitment received grades of C- and C, respectively, Ms. Dahlberg said. Ohio's policies on these issues put it in the middle of the pack nationwide.

The issue of shackling juveniles warranted an F because the state allows children to be "routinely shackled with handcuffs, belly chains, and leg irons without compelling need."

Lucas County Juvenile Court Administrator Dan Pompa said changes in the way things are done probably would have to come from state legislators. In particular, he said, the county rarely chooses to use leg shackles unless the situation warrants it. He said handcuffs are a procedural part of safety in the courthouse.

"We don't body shackle and leg shackle, and kids don't come in looking like the Ghost of Christmas Past here, but we do use handcuffs in the court," he said. "It's a security issue."

Mr. Pompa said comparing Ohio to other states can be misleading because Ohio has several large cities. And circumstances youths face in the central city are different than in rural areas, he said.

"To compare Ohio with Idaho is crazy," he said. "Kids of color commit disproportionate amounts of serious crime, because you'll find that these kids are exposed to higher rates of risk."

"It's not whether they are in the system but why," he said.

Because the state is looking at the issue of disproportionate minority confinement and because it recently instituted a program that says juveniles must consult a parent, guardian, or attorney before waiving their right to counsel, both areas received grades of "incomplete."

Mr. Pompa said that rules governing the courts are a reflection of what state legislators believe their constituents would support.

But Ms. Dahlberg pointed to the significant amount of discretion that judges have in their courtrooms and the social science studies that show practices such as shackling and certifying juveniles lead to recidivism.

"Juvenile court, unlike the adult court, has a dual purpose: One of the purposes is punitive, the other purpose is rehabilitative," she said.

"Prevailing attitude is that you detain a kid then we'll let him go, and that'll scare him straight," she added. "Data shows that is not the case."



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