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Published: Monday, 7/21/2003

Blended sentences give judges new option

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

His first victim was 3 years old when he sneaked into her bedroom and forced himself on her. He silenced her with whispered threats.

The next victim was 15. Pushing her to the floor, he pressed his pocketknife to her throat, threatening to cut her.

But he was just 16 himself. And now the system had a problem: what to do with an obviously violent - but still very young - criminal who had a previously clean record.

“You've got this group of kids who have long records, but nothing's terribly serious, and we keep them in the juvenile [court] system,” said Lucas County juvenile Prosecutor Steve Messinger. “Then you've got those who've got a list of really serious crimes, and they get certified” to stand trial as adults.

“But then you have a kid who starts off with this serious stuff,” he said. “He doesn't really have much of a record. What do you do with him?”

Enter a plea bargain for the young rapist under the state's new Serious Youthful Offender law.

Now on the books for more than 18 months, the new law - “SYO” in courtroom lingo - was supposed to offer judges more options in handling Ohio's youngest criminals by allowing them to impose two sentences at one time.

The first is a sentence from the juvenile court, an optimistic system that stresses rehabilitation.

In this case, the boy was sent to an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility, where he will undergo intensive sex-offender treatment.

The second sentence, though, is from the adult system, a harsher world of guilt or innocence, community safety, and punishment. A sort of “default sentence” that can include lengthy prison terms, this second sentence can kick in if the youth commits another crime.

The same boy also faces a four-year adult prison sentence if he commits another felony.

The new law seems to be getting a lot of use - just not by the judges.

“It's a useful tool for prosecutors,” said Anne Kirkhope, another Lucas County juvenile prosecutor. “We're still working out what our criteria are, but I'd say it's for kids who don't have the necessary factors to be certified [to stand trial as adults].”

Consider that in Lucas County, prosecutors began pursuing 27 cases under SYO sentencing last year, triggering all the safeguards of the adult system - bond, preliminary hearings, and even a jury trial.

But of those cases, all but four ended in some sort of plea bargain instead.

In some, for example, the juvenile pleaded delinquent to all the charges in exchange for the prosecutor's office abandoning its pursuit of SYO sentencing. In others, prosecutors abandoned requests to ask that the child stand trial as adult in exchange for a plea under SYO sentencing.

A Blade review of the data also revealed:

  • Only two other Lucas County teens are serving SYO sentences at an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility: a 17-year-old who robbed a cab driver at gunpoint and a 16-year old who assaulted a police officer.

  • In 14 cases, the offenders were accused of using guns; in two other cases, the offenders robbed a convenience store as though they had a gun.

  • Throughout Ohio, 36 teens are at Ohio Department of Youth Services facilities under blended sentence for violations as serious as involuntary manslaughter. The least serious offender came from Hancock County, where he was charged with inducing panic.

    Elsewhere in northwest Ohio, Erie and Huron counties sent one offender each to a Youth Services lockup. Both were convicted of rape.

    Blending adult and juvenile sentences throughout the country began with the news reports of the 1990s that screamed of the so-called teenaged “super-predator.”

    “When this legislation was being developed, there was this rampant [feeling of] `Let's get tough on these drive-by shootings,' and `These kids are out of control,'” said Geno Natalucci-Persichetti, longtime director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

    In all, 26 states have passed varied versions of blended sentencing.

    The wave of legislative tinkering was disheartening to those who had noticed the ebbing of the youth-crime rate by the mid-1990s, coupled with increasing successes in treatment programs and other alternatives to lockup, said Patrick Griffin, a researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.

    “Our feeling is that if you kick a kid to the criminal court, it's like giving up the idea of turning him around,” he said.

    Some states handed adult court judges the option to sentence teenagers under the juvenile court law, a sort of “pass back” to the juvenile system and a second chance at rehabilitation, Mr. Griffin said. Other states like Ohio handed their juvenile court judges more power, “exposing” the teenager to adult sanctions, he said. Michigan law provides both types of sentencing, he said.

    Certainly, not everyone has been sold on the idea.

    Judge James Ray of Lucas County Juvenile Court called Ohio's new law “an idea that sounded good, but wasn't based on research.”

    The problem, he said, is that most youths don't consider consequences, especially when it comes to long-term. Those who work in juvenile justice realize that youths are “impulsive, risk-takers, and they run in packs,” he said.

    “I'm an adult. If I have three years of prison hanging over my head, maybe I'll think twice before committing that criminal act,” Judge Ray said. “But a kid says, `They won't catch me because I'm too slick.'”

    Rather than threats, the best way to change a child's behavior - as any new parent learns - is in brief, frequent sanctions coupled with appropriate corrections, he said.

    Fellow Lucas County Judge Joseph Flores agreed, noting that juvenile judges may transfer a child to adult court under certain serious cases now.

    Still, Judge Robert DeLamatre of Erie County Juvenile Court said the new law offered an option he wouldn't otherwise have had. He, too, had to sentence a teenage rapist, eventually sending the boy to a juvenile facility, but imposing the adult sentence as well.

    “I used to feel it was an all-or-nothing situation,” Judge DeLamatre said. “I could keep them in the juvenile system but that gives me only a couple of years of jurisdiction, or if I could send them over to adult system, [but] rehab goes down the list.

    “This allows us to take a chance with that child,” he said, “but still have a safety net if we make a wrong decision, if our attempts of rehabilitation don't work.”



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