In Lucas County Juvenile Court yesterday, Judge James Ray was trying to sort out new law. It wasn't easy.
Ohio's Serious Youthful Offender law, effective since Jan. 1, 2002, has left unanswered questions about standards of evidence, paperwork requirements, and other court proceedings. And that, in turn, placed Judge Ray in the middle of an unknown legal landscape.
"It's not the first time the legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has left us with maybe more questions than answers," he said at the start of the more than four-hour hearing.
Ohio's Serious Youthful Offender law allows juvenile court judges to hand out both adult and juvenile sentences to an offender as young as 10 years old if he or she is designated a "serious youthful offender." In court lingo, that's "SYO."
As an SYO, a child has all the safeguards of the adult justice system, including a right to a trial by a jury and bond. Its aim, in part, is to be a "last chance" for juvenile offenders who are just short of being turned over to the adult system for their offenses.
Since its passage, at least 105 juveniles have been sent to Ohio Department of Youth Services lock-ups with an adult sentence hanging over their heads. Should they have further run-ins with the law while they serve out their juvenile sentences, a judge may order them to serve their adult sentence in adult prison.
Lucas County, by far, uses the SYO statute more than any other Ohio county. A preliminary review by researcher Hunter Hurst of the National
Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh found that only three Ohio counties use it routinely: Lucas, Cuyahoga (Cleveland), and Summit (Akron).
In fact, a state review completed last year by a Delaware County magistrate found that more than half of the state's 88 counties didn't use it at all.
As a result, juvenile justice officials around the state and even national researchers like Mr. Hurst are watching closely the case of Anthony Brown, who appeared yesterday before Judge Ray in shackles and a bright orange jumper.
On Oct. 10, 2002, Judge Ray ordered Mr. Brown, then a 15-year-old teenager, to an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility after more than a dozen arrests for assaults, car thefts, trespassing, and safe school rules violations.
At the same time, Judge Ray designated him a "serious youthful offender," imposed a four-year adult prison sentence, and then suspended it. He warned that the juvenile could face the adult time if he had other problems.
The teen was eventually released from the juvenile lock-up, then returned there after some traffic offenses. He then assaulted a corrections officer and was found delinquent of felony assault, prompting Department of Youth Services officials to send him back to Judge Ray with the recommendation he be sent to prison.
While juveniles elsewhere in the state have committed offenses that have triggered the adult sentences meted out in their earlier cases, Mr. Brown's case marks the first time the state's juvenile justice system has sent a juvenile back to court because some DYS officials feel there remains no more hope to rehabilitate him within the juvenile system.
Additionally, Mr. Brown, now 18, "poses a potential risk of harm in the institution," Rich Cholar, a former juvenile parole board member, testified yesterday.
Mr. Cholar said officials had logged 47 "incidents" involving Mr. Brown while at Youth Services facilities, he said.
"I don't think I've ever had a kid who has had as many incidents as Anthony Brown," Mr. Cholar said.
Ann Baronas, Mr. Brown's defense attorney, repeatedly asked questions about the process of returning Mr. Brown to Lucas County and about how his behavior compared to that of other youths in the state's institutions.
John McLendon, a unit administrator who supervised Mr. Brown, conceded under Ms. Baronas' questioning that Mr. Brown was no more aggressive than many other youths.
When the defense attorney asked whether the youth was receiving mental health intervention and mental health medications he'd been taking before being locked up, Mr. McLendon said he had not.
Facing a volume of medical reports and other information to review, Judge Ray took the case under advisement.
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