COLUMBUS – On the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the ACLU of Ohio, Children's Law Center, and the Office of the Ohio Public Defender released an updated report card on the state's progress to reform the juvenile justice system. The report found the state continues to fail its children by permitting them to be routinely shackled, refusing to ensure that children accused of crimes are represented by attorneys, and by not collecting adequate data to measure ongoing problems and successes within the system.
“Bill of Rights Day provides us with a reminder that we must do more to protect the rights of the most vulnerable Americans,” said ACLU of Ohio Policy Director Shakyra Diaz. “When the Constitution was first drafted, the founders did nothing explicit to ensure children had any rights. In today's world, whether kids are in school, foster care, or the juvenile justice system, it is our responsibility they are treated fairly and compassionately.”
Among the positive changes since the report card was first released in 2008 include House Bill 86, recently passed by the Ohio General Assembly. H.B. 86 provides modest reforms, especially in giving judges some discretion in determining if a child will be tried in adult court. In addition, the Ohio Supreme Court is considering adopting Juvenile Rule 3, which would ensure fewer children waive their right to counsel.
Unfortunately, there has not been improvement in other areas. Though incarceration rates have decreased, Ohio still detains and incarcerates a greater percentage of its children than many other states in the nation. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated remain children of color. Additionally, inadequate data collection and a lack of transparency of the part of the state make it more difficult than ever to determine how the system works.
Also, despite the growing trend of eliminating the practice in other states, Ohio continues to allow the shackling of children who appear in court, regardless of whether or not they pose any threat. Shackling has been prohibited in adult court unless there is a compelling need — but Ohio's children have yet to be afforded the same consideration.
“Shackling children who pose no danger to themselves or others is not just cruel, it is counterproductive,” said Jill Beeler, Chief Counsel for the Office of the Ohio Public Defender's Juvenile Division. “Instead of taking the opportunity to focus on a path to rehabilitation, the state continues to treat our juvenile offenders worse than they treat adults. This policy creates lasting negative consequences for everyone.”
The report card also reveals that large numbers if Ohio youth continue to face the justice system without consulting a lawyer, despite facts that show most children do not understand the consequences of waiving their right to counsel.
Additionally, Ohio remains one of a small number of states who take the decision to try a child as an adult out of the hands of a judge, instead mandating that children charged with certain offenses be tried as adults. This practice goes against the recommendation of the American Bar Association and gives no flexibility whatsoever, regardless of whether a child may be capable of rehabilitation.
“The cumulative impact of these bad policies can be seen all around us,” said Kim Brooks Tandy, Executive Director of the Children's Law Center, Inc. “We are creating entire generations who enter the criminal justice system as children and never come out. There is clearly a better way.”