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Ohio Juvenile Justice System

The Ohio juvenile justice system has goals that are quite different than the criminal justice system.  Juvenile courts focus on helping the juvenile, while the criminal justice system focuses on punishment.  Despite the lofty goals of the Ohio juvenile justice system, Ohio juvenile courts can sometimes be as punitive as criminal courts.    

Courts Used To Treat Children Like Adults

In colonial times, a seven year old could be sentenced in criminal courts.  Children could be sentenced to death in those times.  In 1825, the U.S. established facilities for juveniles.  These facilities separated juveniles from adult offenders and attempted to reform delinquent children through prayer, study and hard work.  However, punishment for juveniles in such facilities consisted of whippings and leg irons.  Some juvenile delinquents were forced into apprenticeships and were sent out west by train to live with farm families. 

Juvenile Courts Are Specialized Courts

In 1899, Illinois established the nation’s first juvenile court.  Other states quickly followed suit, recognizing that that they needed specialized dockets to address the needs of juveniles.  In 1902, Ohio established its first juvenile court in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  Ohio juvenile courts hear cases involving abortion consent; abused, neglected, and dependent children; unruly and delinquent children; and traffic offenders under eighteen years of age.  Some Ohio juvenile courts hear cases involving parentage, child custody, child support, child visitation, consent to marry, adults charged with contributing to the delinquency, neglect or unruliness of children, failure to send a child to school and child endangering.  Some juvenile courts have relinquished their jurisdiction over some of these issues.  For example, Medina County and Summit County juvenile courts no longer hear parentage cases, as such matters are now heard in domestic relations court.  The Wayne County juvenile court still hears parentage cases. 

Juvenile Courts Lost Their Way

Juvenile courts did lose their way at one point.  The United States Supreme Court commented in a 1966 opinion that juvenile courts failed to live up to their promise, and that “there may be grounds for concern that the child receives the worst of both worlds [in juvenile court]; that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.”

United States Supreme Court Gave Juveniles Due Process Rights

The United States Supreme Court addressed this issue in their 1967 decision in In Re Gault.  The lower court placed 15 year old Gerald Gault on probation for being with another boy who stole a wallet from a women’s purse.  While on probation, the authorities accused Gault of making an indecent phone call to a neighbor.  The police arrested Gault without notice to his parents. He did not receive notice of the charges against him. After a hearing with no sworn witnesses and no record being made of the proceedings, the court sent Gault to juvenile prison until 21 years of age.  His parents petitioned for their son’s release.  The case made it all the to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Gault’s favor and held that due process of law applied to juveniles. This included the right to notice of the charges against them, to legal counsel, the right against self-incrimination, and to confront and cross-examine witnesses. 

The United States Supreme Court continued to declare that juveniles were entitled to the same rights as adults, in its 1970 decision, In re Winship.  In that case, the juvenile court determined by a preponderance of the evidence that the juvenile committed a theft.  Preponderance of the evidence only means that it was more likely than not that the incident occurred.  Because adults potentially face incarceration, adults were entitled to force the state to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.  Juveniles deserved no less said the U.S. Supreme Court.  In this case, the juvenile faced up to six years in a juvenile training school, a fate not that dissimilar to adult prison. 

Juvenile Rights Still Limited

This trend slowed down in 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that juveniles did not have the right to trial by jury.  In a case named McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, the Court decided that extending the right to a jury trial “would effectively abolish any significant distinction between juvenile and criminal proceedings.”   

Modern Juvenile Justice Rights Movement

Congress also stepped into this trend in passing the Juvenile Justice And Delinquency Prevention Act.  This act requires separation of juvenile offenders from adult offenders.  It also requires deinstitutionalization of status offenders. 

However, in 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court was back in the business of protecting the rights of juveniles when it abolished the death penalty for juveniles.  The Court decided that the imposing the death penalty upon juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment because their immaturity made them less culpable for than adult criminals. 

In 2012, the Supreme Court held that courts could not impose upon juveniles mandatory life sentences with no chance for parole.  Instead, the courts must consider each child on a case by case basis, considering a number of factors including the child’s age. 

Juvenile Justice Timeline:

1899First Juvenile Court in the United States
1902First Juvenile Court in Ohio
1967Juveniles are entitled to many of the same due process rights as adults.
1970Charges against juveniles must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
1971Juveniles are not entitled to trial by jury
1974Juvenile Justice And Delinquency Prevention Act
2005Juveniles cannot receive the death penalty
2012Juveniles cannot automatically receive mandatory life sentences with no parole.

Due Process Rights In Adult Criminal Court:

No one can be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
No one can be compelled to be a witness against himself or herself in a criminal trial.
No one can be tried for a serious crime unless indicted by a grand jury.
Right to a speedy and public trial.
Right to an impartial jury.
Right to notice of the nature and cause of accusation.
Right to confront adverse witnesses.
Right to compel witnesses in one’s favor to appear in court.
Right to assistance of legal counsel for one’s defense.
Right against excessive bail.
Right against cruel an unusual punishment.

Should Juveniles Receive Adult Penalties?

Proponents of getting tough on juvenile crime say that juvenile courts may have met the needs of juveniles during simpler times, but were no match for the reality of juvenile crime in the late twentieth century.  This led to the lowering of the age of eligibility to transfer a juvenile’s case to adult court, as well as an expansion of the list of crimes eligible for such a transfer.  Some crimes were designated as automatic transfers to adult court, as long as the juvenile met the minimum age requirement specified in the automatic transfer statute. 

While this get tough on crime strategy may satisfy the public’s demand for retribution, it has a poor track record for rehabilitating youth offenders.  Therefore, juvenile courts tend to focus on services and programs targeted to youthful offenders.  Adolescents have deficient decision-making capabilities and are more prone to peer pressure than adults.  While many 16 and 17 year olds may, on paper, understand the importance of making good choices, they have difficulty carrying out that knowledge in the real world.  Teens often see a reward, rather than the risk, in antisocial behavior.  For example, such behavior may increase one’s social status among peers.  Teens are also not necessarily masters of their own fate, as they, unlike adults, are not free to leave their schools, homes and neighborhoods.  Self report studies have also shown that 80-90 percent of teenage boys have committed crimes for which they could be incarcerated.  This is not surprising, as statistics show that 17 year olds commit more crimes than any other age group.  This does not mean that these 17 year olds will grow up to be criminals—in fact, they tend to go on to lead productive lives.  Herein lies the risk of imposing severe punishments on juveniles—many of those juvenile offenders will age out of such behaviors, unless the state incarcerates them.  Incarceration would then become their social setting, where they learn norms and behavior patterns that may affect the rest of their lives.  Simply put: if you surround a good kid who made one bad mistake with bad kids by placing the good kid in juvenile detention or juvenile prison (in Ohio, it is called the Department of Youth Services), the good kid learns to be bad.  Using programs has the greatest level of success on juveniles, ranging between 20-30 percent success.      

Attorney Daniel Gigiano Reviews Ohio Juvenile Justice

I have seen first-hand the way juvenile courts have handled the need to balance services against the need to protect the public.  I have worked in juvenile courts in both Illinois and Ohio.  Currently, I defend juveniles in several juvenile courts in Ohio, including Medina County, Summit County and Wayne County. 

The courts have in-house services and connections to local services to meet the mission of ensuring the child receives services first.  These services are designed to help the child and his or her family address the problems that led to the delinquent behavior.  If the child had substance abuse issues, substance abuse treatment is ordered.  If the child is difficult to parent, the parents often participate in programs designed to give them new parenting techniques.  However, because children can be impulsive or have less than ideal home environments or peer groups, they often spend time in detention or house arrest prior to receiving such services.  Children may also resist or forget the orders of the court, leading to further detention, and in some cases, being remanded to the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

During my years of experience with juvenile courts, it is my opinion that the various courts really do try to help juveniles.  The courts recognize the unique opportunity to turn these juvenile’s lives around before it is too late.  Courts also consider the negative impact incarceration can have on a juvenile, as it can contribute to the juvenile becoming a hardened criminal.  It is all a tough balancing act.    

Attorney Daniel Gigiano. Experienced. Dedicated. Aggressive.

Attorney Daniel Gigiano has practiced criminal law since 1993.  In 2002, he started his current firm, Daniel F. Gigiano Co., L.P.A., where he regularly defends individuals in criminal and juvenile cases.  Daniel Gigiano has experienced both juvenile and adult criminal courts as both an assistant prosecutor and a defense attorney.  In doing so, Attorney Daniel Gigiano experienced first hand the marked difference between juvenile court and adult criminal court.  Attorney Daniel Gigiano’s office is located in downtown Wadsworth, Medina County, Ohio.      

Sources of Information

I am indebted to the following sources of information for this article:


John Dilulio, “The Coming of the Super-predators,” Weekly Standard, 27 November 1995, p. 23. 

Terrie Moffitt, “Adolescence-Limited and Life-Court-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy,”  Psychology Review  100 (1993): 674-701. 

Albert Reiss Jr. and David Farrington, “Advancing Knowledge about Co-Offending: Results from a Prospective Longitudinal Survey of London Males,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 82 (1991): 360-95.

Alex Piquero, David Farrington, and Alfred Blumstein, “The Criminal Career Paradigm,” in Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research 30 (2003). 

Douglas Lipton and others.  The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies (New York: Praeger, 1975).  _____________________________________________________________________