Bill would give judges more say on trying juveniles as adults

Judges who believe defendants can be rehabilitated have no discretion under current system, lawmaker says.

A local legislator wants to give judges more discretion in binding over youths to the adult justice system, but a prosecutor’s group is opposing the measure because it says it removes a needed crime deterrent.

State Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, said he wants juveniles held accountable for their actions, but the law needs to take into consideration that the brain of a 14-year-old is very different from that of a 24-year-old.

He said the juvenile system, with its counseling and treatment programs, may be the best place for teens to be rehabilitated.

“When you’re a juvenile it’s not solely about punishments. It’s about changing them,” Rezabek said.

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“There have been a number of cases where kids have made bad choices and all of a sudden you have 15- and 16-year-olds being transferred to the adult system,” said Rezabek, an attorney who specializes in juvenile cases.

Known as “mandatory bind over,” the current system requires that youth aged 14 and up who are charged with very serious offenses be automatically tried in adult court. Statewide, 168 juveniles last year were bound over to adult court, including 14 in the nine-county Dayton region, according to the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association says it will oppose eliminating the mandatory bind over, arguing it creates a deterrent and promotes public safety.

“I think prosecutors recognize that juveniles deserve some special consideration in the criminal justice system,” said Louis Tobin, the association’s executive director.

RELATED: Ohio Supreme Court rules juveniles can be sent to adult court

‘Consideration for the victim should be paramount’

Rezabek’s House Bill 394 is pending in the House Criminal Justice Committee. Besides giving juvenile judges more leeway on certain cases, the bill would:

  • Allow judges to hold a hearing on the ability of a juvenile and his or her family to pay court costs and fees, and permit alternatives, such as work programs, to pay off fines and restitution in all 88 counties.
  • Eliminate sentences of life without the opportunity to have a parole hearing for juveniles sent to adult prison.
  • Clarify language on time served in detention or treatment centers.

Tobin said the offenses that trigger a mandatory bind over are among the most serious under Ohio law. “We think public safety and consideration for the victim should be paramount in those situations,” he said.

Under current law a juvenile aged 14 or 15 must be transferred to adult court if he or she has previously been committed to the DYS for an offense and has been newly charged with aggravated murder, murder or attempt to commit either of those offenses, Tobin said.

Juveniles aged 16 or 17 are automatically sent to adult court if charged with those same offenses even if they have not previously been adjudicated.

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Also, 16- or 17-year-olds are automatically tried in adult court if they’ve been previously adjudicated and sent to DYS and face a new charge that includes any of the following crimes: voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary and first-degree felony involuntary manslaughter.

Under each of the conditions above, the individual is bound over to adult court regardless of whether a juvenile judge believes the youth could be rehabilitated in the juvenile system.

‘Our judges have been very clear’

The Ohio Association of Juvenile Court Judges, which advocates for juvenile justices across the state, favors eliminating automatic transfers, said James Cole, administrator of the Montgomery County Juvenile Court.

“Our judges have been very clear, and the Ohio Association of Juvenile Court Judges have made clear, they favor doing away with mandatory transfers,” Cole said.

A member of the juvenile committee of the Ohio Sentencing Commission, Cole said mandatory-bind-over reform was one of the commission’s recommendations for changes in Ohio law.

Automatic transfers were thrown out by the Ohio Supreme Court in a Montgomery County case, and then reinstated earlier this year.

Giving judges more discretion doesn’t mean violent criminals won’t be punished, Cole emphasized.

“We are not saying it is necessarily a bad thing for someone who has committed a heinous crime not to go to the adult system,” he said.

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