Youth offenders continue to harm victims when given second chance

As the juvenile judge responsible for the decision to try T.J. Lane as an adult for shooting six students at Chardon High School in 2012, I was well aware of the shifting views of the U.S. Supreme Court with respect to the sentencing of juvenile offenders as adults for committing serious crimes such as murder.

For that reason, I ordered a thorough and comprehensive mental health and competency evaluation of T.J. Lane by one of Ohio’s top forensic psychiatrists.

I then fully considered Lane’s age (17) and mental development, along with all of the other evidence submitted, before I transferred Lane to be tried as an adult in the Common Pleas Court.

There was no evidence that T.J. Lane’s homicidal actions were the result of youthful indiscretion or lack of mental capability or development because of his age. The evidence presented to the court demonstrated little likelihood that with the passage of time (whether 20 years, 35 years or 50 years) T.J. Lane would no longer be dangerous.

I know the common pleas judge also ordered a second mental competency evaluation before he accepted Lane’s guilty pleas and sentenced him to multiple life sentences without parole.

My decision to transfer Lane to be tried as an adult and his subsequent sentence were upheld by the court of appeals, and are consistent with multiple rulings by the Ohio Supreme Court.

With this history in mind, the recent efforts by the Ohio Legislature to require parole hearings for juvenile offenders at age 40 (the Ohio Senate’s version of the bill) and age 53 (the Ohio House’s version of the bill) are not only disappointing and unnecessary, but also inflict an additional injustice to the victims and their families whose lives were forever changed by the offense, and who will never have a second chance to experience life with their loved ones.

These legislative proposals: (1) are based on a misguided legal analysis of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings; and (2) ignore the extensive mental health and competency evaluations of juvenile offenders ordered by juvenile and common pleas judges.

The U.S. Supreme Court has NOT expressly ruled that a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender is unconstitutional. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically stated, “we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment (to impose life without parole) in homicide cases.” Rather, as recognized by the Ohio Supreme Court in State v. Long, a court “must separately consider the youth of a juvenile offender as a mitigating factor before imposing a sentence of life without parole.” The sentencing court also must reflect in the record that the court specifically considered the juvenile offender’s youth as a mitigating factor at sentencing when a prison term of life without parole is imposed.

Furthermore, based on the trial judge’s sentencing hearing and thorough review of the juvenile’s history, the trial judge is in the best position to decide if parole is ever warranted and, if so, after how many years of future adult incarceration.

Finally, the notion, advanced by some, that a juvenile’s brain is not fully formed until the age of 25 is, at most, simply a mitigating factor and NOT a defense to committing homicide or an excuse for less than full accountability for juvenile homicidal acts. To conclude otherwise, would diminish the seriousness of homicidal misconduct by our youth and dilute justice for the victims and their families.

A sentence imposing life without parole on a juvenile offender is rare and exceptional, reserved only for the most heinous of crimes.

In cases such as the Chardon shooting, where a court finds that no such age-related adjustment or mitigation is warranted, based on extensive psychological evaluation, the judge, in his or her discretion, should be allowed to sentence a juvenile tried as an adult to life without parole. In my personal opinion, the changes being considered by the Ohio Legislature would cause more harm than good.

Timothy Grendell is Geauga County Probate / Juvenile Court judge.

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