Prior juvenile convictions cannot be used to escalate the severity of charges or increase the prison sentences of adults, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
In a 4-3 decision, the justices declared that treating cases from juvenile court as prior convictions for adult-sentencing purposes is unconstitutional, violating the due-process clauses of the Ohio and U.S. constitutions, and is “fundamentally unfair.”
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, writing for the majority, said that juvenile court proceedings, which are civil – not criminal – matters, are designed to protect the development of those under age 18 while they are rehabilitated.
Adult felony sentences, however, are designed to protect the public and punish offenders, she wrote.
“In summary, juvenile adjudication differs from criminal sentencing – one is civil and rehabilitative, the other is criminal and punitive,” Lanzinger wrote.
Since juveniles facing delinquency charges have no right to a jury trial, crimes committed by youths cannot be used to enhance prison sentences they later receive as adults, the opinion said.
The ruling overturned an appellate court decision on the Dayton case of Adrian Hand Jr., who pleaded no contest as an adult to three first-degree felonies – aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery and kidnapping – while using a gun.
The judge considered a juvenile court adjudication against Hand as a prior felony conviction that escalated the sentence he faced and ordered him to serve a mandatory additional three years in prison consecutive to another three-year term.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill joined Lanzinger in her opinion.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell was joined by Justices Judith L. French and Sharon L. Kennedy in his dissenting opinion.
Ohio law, O'Donnell wrote, plainly allows juvenile convictions to be used in sentencing adults. Six federal court decisions and five state supreme courts have found crimes committed as juveniles can later be used to enhance the prisons sentences of adults, he said.
O’Donnell wrote that it was inappropriate for the court to change state law, a decision that should rest with lawmakers