It’s been hard to watch the news (and social media) lately with all of the violence that erupted in the past week— kids murdering kids at Easton on a Sunday afternoon; a good-Samaritan gunned down in broad-daylight by senseless robbers, and the list goes on! It makes you shake your head and wonder if you can go anywhere in Columbus and feel safe at all. As a prosecutor and a mother, I wonder where society went wrong in that it seems the value of human life is evaporating right before our eyes. Certainly, the officials in the criminal justice field play a mighty role in the safety of our community, but I know, from my own experience, that the value of human life — basic right vs. wrong — begins at home. If I am being honest though, what is equally dismaying is the political jockeying occurring in our urban counties over this violence, but I’ve always found in my career, if you do the right thing (not the political thing), justice is served.
As you can imagine, we’ve had numerous questions in the last week about how we handle kids (juveniles) who commit crimes in Delaware County. If you missed it, Beth Matune, our supervising attorney of our Juvenile Division, was on WDLR Wednesday morning discussing the ins and outs of juvenile laws and prosecution. She also discussed, how ultimately, if a juvenile is convicted (adjudicated is the proper legal term) in Delaware County, then the juvenile’s case will usually be sent back to the county where they reside for disposition (think sentence). This is a very simplistic breakdown, and it would take more than just a column to explain it adequately but yes, we can lose all legal control basically or the ability to continue to hold juveniles accountable to Delaware County standards. And, just as I parent my daughter, we set high standards in Delaware for the kids who come through our court system because we believe juvenile court is opportunity to intervene, correct, and hold responsible those juveniles who are only a few years (or months even!) from being adults, hopefully preventing them from becoming adult felons where the penalties can be life-long and are much more severe.
Here is an example, and I’ve written about this case before, but if you recall, we had a shooting at the southern end of the county where a group juveniles shot at an apartment complex after being confronted by a resident who observed the juveniles rifling through cars. First, let’s stop there — can you imagine — you are confronted with the words “get away from my car” and your response is to open gun fire?!
Now, fast forward to prosecution … there ended up being three suspects apprehended from the incident. All three were prosecuted through the juvenile court here initially, but all three had very different legal treks because of the law. Our office asked that all juveniles be tried as adults, which triggers special legal proceedings. These proceedings require two things to occur in juvenile court: 1) the court must find there is probable cause to support the charges; and 2) the court must find that the juvenile is not amenable to the juvenile justice system. If those two things occur, the juvenile can then be tried as an adult. In this shooting case, one juvenile remained in juvenile court because he was found to be amenable to juvenile justice system. A second juvenile was sent to adult court, but ultimately wound back up in juvenile court because of plea negotiations. And the third juvenile was sent to adult court and ended up pleading guilty to serious violent felonies and is currently serving a prison sentence in adult prison. You might be asking how three suspects in the same crime could get such different outcomes? It depends on several factors outlined in the law, including age of the suspects, prior criminal history in juvenile court, and the type of offense the juvenile is charged with (in a nutshell).
Now, I can’t speak for how things are done in other counties, but my office will routinely review violent offenses and ask that juveniles be sent to adult court when the underlying crime suggests a more adult sanction is needed and appropriate. Our juvenile court is excellent and takes great care in assessing these potential cases because, statistically, juveniles who get sent to adult prisons rarely get out of prison and become law abiding citizens. This is sad, but it is also more support for what I said earlier, accountability starts at home. And when a juvenile comes to court, our office doesn’t see kids who should just get a hug and be sent out the door — instead we ask ourselves — how can we protect the community best by ensuring this juvenile never enters the court system again? Sometimes that requires a tough-love prosecution philosophy, but it is one I am proud to insist upon in my office.
Now, there was a pretty monumental celebration in Delaware County juvenile court this week — the victim services director, Dana Wisecarver, retired. Dana has served victims in juvenile court for a long time, and we are sad to see him go. Please join us in wishing him the best retirement and days ahead. Thank you Dana for your service — you are a gem in the criminal justice system who positively shaped the role of victim advocacy in juvenile court for years to come.
Melissa A. Schiffel is the Delaware County prosecutor.