Bill would improve juvenile justice
As horrible as it is to consider, sometimes children can make grave errors and commit terrible crimes. Understandably, establishing rules on how to deal with children who are accused of committing serious crimes has been an ongoing challenge for our state’s juvenile-justice system. However, a bill introduced in the Ohio Senate offers a way forward that could produce better outcomes for youths and for our state.
At issue is when and how teens accused of committing certain crimes can be bound over to be tried as adults in adult criminal court. For some youths, this transfer to the adult court is, and has been, mandatory and the judge has no discretion to determine whether bindover is appropriate by considering other factors, like the unique circumstances of the case, such as if the child was influenced by an adult, if the child has developmental-disability challenges, or if the child is more likely to be rehabilitated in the juvenile system.
Our juvenile-justice system is fundamentally different than the adult criminal system since its primary goal is rehabilitation, not punishment. Accountability is meant to be a rehabilitative tool by holding young people responsible for their actions in age-appropriate ways. In addition, by making some bindovers mandatory, these laws explicitly forbid juvenile-court judges from using their experience and insight when determining whether an accused child is more suitable for juvenile or adult court. This limitation fails to recognize that juvenile-court judges are specifically trained to make these decisions, and are generally in the best position to objectively do so.
The Ohio Supreme Court has wrestled with mandatory bindover twice in the last year. Most recently, the court determined that the General Assembly has “exclusive constitutional authority to define the jurisdiction of the courts of common pleas,” meaning that any change to the bindover rules must come from the legislature.
Fortunately, there is a bipartisan bill pending in the Ohio Senate that could provide a solution. Senate Bill 64 would replace Ohio’s mandatory-bindover laws with new rules that ensure juvenile court judges have discretion to make choices based on a child’s individual situation and potential for rehabilitation, as well as other relevant circumstances about the case.
For some young people who are accused of committing truly terrible crimes, the adult criminal-justice system may be the most appropriate place to hear their case. Others may be good candidates for rehabilitation in the juvenile-justice system, helping them grow into lawabiding adults. What’s clear is that the experts best suited to assess the most appropriate path for each accused young offender are juvenilecourt judges. It’s time we put that decision back in their hands with SB 64.
Ohio’s juvenile-justice system has significantly improved in recent years, thanks to smart, evidencebased reforms championed by Gov. John Kasich and many thoughtful members of the Ohio General Assembly. SB 64 is the next crucial piece in making Ohio juvenile-justice system a model for the country, and it deserves passage.
Jim Petro Former state auditor, state attorney general Tiffin Hilliard