Why Juvenile Court Was the Right Call in Steubenville Case

by Erin Davies

The Steubenville case has brought up a seemingly innumerable host of issues, ranging from sexual assault to social media to personal responsibility to the role of sports in a community.  The case has also raised questions about the role and purpose of the juvenile court and its ability to hold teenagers accountable for their actions.

In the Steubenville case, Ohio law, like the laws of many other states, presented the possibility for the youth who committed the offenses to be charged in adult court.  And this has raised the question for some about why these youth were not prosecuted as adults.

We believe that the decision to keep the youth in the Steubenville case in juvenile court was the right one, not only for the youth themselves, but for society as a whole.

Here’s why:

The juvenile justice system – like any system that has people as its main consumer – is messy.  The juvenile court’s job is to find a set of facts that represent the court’s version of the truth.

If a youth is adjudicated delinquent (the juvenile equivalent of being found guilty), the court then tries to come up with a punishment that, in serious cases, uses the tools it has at its disposal to do its best to make something right that is very difficult to make right.

Unfortunately, the juvenile justice system can’t do what many of us – including many young offenders – want it to do:  take back harmful actions and unhurt the victim.

What makes the job of the juvenile court even more difficult is the added layer of working with teenagers.  With teenagers, many times we find ourselves asking “what were they thinking?” and the answer is usually unsatisfying.

This is not to say that teenagers don’t know the difference between right and wrong. However, adolescent development research relied upon by the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized a fundamental difference between youth and adult decision-making.

Throughout adolescence and into young adulthood, teenagers’ brains are still changing in important ways, and the final parts of the brain to develop are the parts that make youth less impulsive and more reasoned in their decision-making.

In addition, there are circumstances that further decrease a teenagers’ ability to make a rational decision, including the influence of alcohol or drugs and being around a group of friends at the time of the offense.

So what is the goal of the juvenile court?  Ideally, the system aims to balance two goals simultaneously.  First, for the victim, the court aims to help the victim find justice as well as any system can provide in a way that supports healing, restitution, and the victim going on to live with as few long-lasting negative effects from the offense as possible.

The court’s second goal – holding the offenders accountable – is complex.  Some argue that the best-case scenario is for the court to throw the book at the young person and put the offender away for the rest of their lives, never to hurt anyone again.  But the reality is that nearly all of the youth who get involved in either the juvenile or adult criminal justice system will return to our communities, many within several years.

Therefore, the court must make a best guess for a long-term outcome: how to mete out punishment that ensures that the offender is held accountable, does not commit another offense, and can return to society and lead the rest of their life as a law-abiding, productive citizen.

Fortunately, research conducted over the past several years can guide the court in making this difficult decision.  Typically, the court’s first decision is whether to prosecute the youth in adult court.  Studies show that, when compared to youth who commit similar crimes but are retained in the juvenile justice system, youth prosecuted in adult court are on average 34 percent more likely to reoffend.

Youth in adult jails and prisons face extremely high rates of physical and sexual assault and are at a severely increased risk of suicide.  They often are not required to participate in rehabilitation services, like mental health services, education, or vocational training.  After their release, they face significant collateral consequences associated with a felony offense, including barriers to employment, housing, and education, none of which help the youth stay on the straight and narrow.

Unlike the adult court system, juvenile courts are designed specifically to handle a range of offenses by youth, including very serious offenses, while taking into account youth’s unique developmental characteristics.  The courts often rely on things like risk assessment tools, which can help indicate a youth’s future likelihood of reoffending, a youth’s prior juvenile justice system involvement, and the particular circumstances of the case in making their decision.

The most severe punishment a court can give is time in a juvenile correctional facility, which is indeed a serious punishment.  Youth in juvenile correctional facilities can face assaults and long stints in isolation, which can create or exacerbate mental health issues.

But compared with adult system offerings, juvenile facilities are far more likely to engage in required rehabilitation programs designed to prevent the youth from reoffending.  In addition, even in the juvenile justice system, youth can face long-term collateral consequences, including the possibility of sex offender registration.

Unfortunately, when an offense happens and particularly when youth are involved, there are no easy answers.  The best we can hope is that the juvenile justice system can do the job that it’s designed to do – hold youth accountable while putting them on a path to make positive future contributions to our communities.

Erin Davies is a public policy attorney for Children’s Law Center in Covington, Ky.

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