“Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles.”
— Code of Ethics
Society of Professional Journalists
“There are many legal arguments for and against publishing the names of children who are in attendance at juvenile court.”
— Judge Theo Bruno
Ocala Star-Banner, 1966
Last week the news, both print and television, was filled with stories about a juvenile offender who escaped from the juvenile detention facility in Marion, Ohio, and was arrested the following morning in the city of Delaware. In the course of those reports, the juvenile’s name was given, along with his physical description. His photograph was printed in newspapers, shown on television and attached to online news links.
As the week went on, several people asked me about the dissemination of the juvenile’s identity. They were aware that news outlets did not generally give the names of juvenile offenders or show pictures of them. Some were genuinely surprised that they had done so in this situation.
There are no laws in Ohio that govern the identification of juvenile offenders by the news media. The freedom of the press is considered particularly inviolate when it comes to reporting on the workings of government, including the court system. The general practice of the news media to avoid giving the names of juvenile offenders is a largely self-policing and long-established practice that grows from the belief that reporting the names of children who have committed minor offenses would inhibit their maturation and rehabilitation into being productive adults.
There are specific rules that relate to the photographing and fingerprinting of juveniles by law enforcement (generally they need permission from the Juvenile Court to do so). In addition, courts are permitted to adopt rules that govern the participation by the news media in court hearings. It is not uncommon for judges to require multiple media outlets to use a single “pool” camera, nor is it rare for courts to prohibit the news media from showing the faces of juveniles or victims as a condition for their being permitted to set up cameras in the courtroom.
But the ability of courts to control the media in a courtroom setting is not unlimited. When I passed the bar exam in 1999 and began working as an assistant prosecuting attorney, Municipal Court Judge Marianne Hemmeter was a more senior assistant working in the office. She successfully prosecuted a murder case in which a juvenile female was charged with conspiracy. Local newspapers asked to be permitted into hearings and ultimately ended up suing the juvenile court in a case that made it all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court.
I was assigned to defend the Juvenile Court in that case. In the end, the Ohio Supreme Court established a set of rules to govern the circumstances in which a juvenile court may close its hearings to the general public. Those rules remain in effect today. The Supreme Court has also established rules to govern public access to court documents.
My response this week to those who asked about the media naming the juvenile escapee was that it was a security issue to do so. He had escaped from a detention facility, had a history of committing serious delinquent acts and it was unknown what he would do to prevent recapture. In that setting, law enforcement made the decision that it was necessary to identify him in order to allow people to take appropriate safety measures and to enlist the public in locating him. In fact, it was members of the public calling law enforcement to report sightings of him that led to his being recaptured and returned to Montgomery County where he resides.
Like many things in the law, what we see as a “general practice” in identifying juveniles has grown from a combination of rules, laws, habits and common sense, mixed together over decades of use.