Sentencing based on research and science win for youth offenders

This guest column by retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lindberg Stratton and Brandon Chrostowski, the own and operator of Cleveland based EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, appeared on the Ideas and Voices page Tuesday, Feb. 9. Guest columns are submitted or requested fact-based opinion pieces typically of 300 to 450 words.

With everyone’s focus on COVID-19, many “wins” in 2020 have gone unnoticed.

As advocates for juvenile justice, and as members of a coalition that strives for better outcomes for Ohio’s youths and families, we are delighted to share the impact of the recently passed Senate Bill 256 as a reason to celebrate.

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The bill accomplishes two things: it creates guidelines based on research and science to assist judges in sentencing youth under 18; and it provides youths who are or will be convicted and given a de facto life sentence the chance to work toward a meaningful opportunity for parole.

As a former Ohio Supreme Court Justice and an entrepreneur who built a business that relies on the hopes and skills of formerly incarcerated individuals, we can attest to the magnitude of this change and the improvements it will make for our neighbors across Ohio.

Neuroscience shows us that brains aren’t done growing until well after adolescence. Impulse control, emotion moderation, decision making, and understanding risk and consequences evolve until age 25.

The law has continually acknowledged that children are biologically different than adults, and should be treated as such.

When children face adult court sentences, they can be sent to adult prison longer than adults with the same charges because they enter so young. Children who enter the adult prisons sometimes do not have access to youth-centered programming such as educational opportunities, mentorship, or youth mental health services. These services are available through the juvenile system.

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In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a youth with a single life without parole sentence should be afforded at least an opportunity for a parole hearing. In 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the necessity of that opportunity in Ohio v. Moore , but left it to legislators to determine sentencing guidelines for when and how that parole opportunity should be afforded.

Our coalition worked alongside the Ohio judiciary and legislature to create and pass SB256. This bill provides sentencing guidelines based on research and science, and level-sets the guidelines used for all youth in determining requirements for a parole hearing. Parole is not guaranteed, and the law does not require parole, but instead a meaningful opportunity for parole.

Credit: McKinley Wiley

Credit: McKinley Wiley

Judges who work with justice-involved youths understand the background and history of that individual, and are better able to provide these youths the resources to become a meaningful member of society again. It remains essential to equip judges with the tools needed to provide fair sentences, while offering all children the opportunity for a brighter future in education, employment, and citizenship. Second chances reunite families, better our communities, and provide economic growth.

It was championed by a bipartisan team of advocates at the Juvenile Justice Coalition, the Ohio Office of the Public Defender, the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western University, the ACLU, the Children’s Law Center, and the Ohio Conservative Juvenile Justice Network for their hard work, as well as each of the legislators who voted for this bill.

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In a year where we are all searching for a silver lining, the passage of this bill is a big win with immediate positive impacts for Ohio youths and families.

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lindberg Stratton champions the cause of juvenile justice, most recently as the chair of the Ohio Conservative Juvenile Justice Network and as co-chair of the Attorney General Task Force on Criminal Justice and Mental Illness.

Brandon Chrostowski has owned and operated Cleveland based EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute since 2007, where he graduates more than 100 students annually with a 95% successful employment rate and a less than a 1% recidivism rate.

About the Authors