Fundamentally Unfair To Treat Juvenile Adjudications As A Previous Conviction

In State v. Hand (2016), 149 Ohio St.3d 94, 2016-Ohio-5504, 73 N.E.3d 448, 2016 Ohio LEXIS 2106, the Supreme Court of Ohio in August 2016 held that using a juvenile’s previous delinquency adjudication to count as a previous “conviction” in order to enhance the charging offense or sentence in a subsequent adult criminal proceeding violated the Due Process Clauses of the Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 16, and the United States Constitution, Fourteenth Amendment.  The Court further held that it was fundamentally unfair to treat a juvenile adjudication as a previous conviction for a subsequent criminal offense committed as a juvenile because juveniles were not afforded the right to a jury trial.

Consistently, the Supreme Court of Ohio has acknowledged that juvenile courts hold a unique place in our legal system.  Namely, that the overriding purposes for juvenile dispositions are to provide for the care, protection, mental and physical development of children, protect the public interest and safety, hold the offender accountable for the offender’s actions, restore the victim, and rehabilitate the offender.  (See Ohio Revised Code, Chapter 2152.)  In contrast, the purposes of adult felony sentencing are to protect the public from future crime by the offender and others, and to punish the offender.  (See ORC, Section 2929.11 (A).)  In summary, juvenile adjudication differs from criminal sentencing — one is civil and rehabilitative, the other is criminal and punitive.

Previously, in 2000, the United States Supreme Court in the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000), determined that other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  The U.S. Supreme Court demanded no less of state statutes, such as the Ohio Revised Code.  A prior “conviction” must itself have been established through procedures satisfying the fair notice, reasonable doubt, and jury guarantees.  Consequently, the proper inquiry under Apprendi is not simply whether juvenile adjudications are deemed to be reliable, but whether the juveniles were afforded the right to a jury trial.

In Hand, the Supreme Court of Ohio also reasoned that the right to a jury trial is no mere procedural formality, but a fundamental reservation of power in our constitutional structure.  Furthermore, that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee a jury standing between a defendant and the power of the State, and they guarantee a jury’s finding of the disputed fact essential to increase the ceiling of a potential sentence.  That is, the jury trial right is primarily focused on preventing the State (prosecution) from drawing conclusions from the facts without using a jury.  The Court concluded that because a juvenile “adjudication” is not established through a procedure that provides the right to a jury trial, it cannot be used to increase a sentence beyond the statutory maximum or mandatory minimum.

Accordingly, it is contradictory and fundamentally unfair to allow juvenile adjudications that result from these less formal civil proceedings to be characterized as criminal convictions that may later enhance adult punishment for a subsequent adult criminal offense.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Ohio in Hand held that treating a juvenile adjudication as an adult conviction to enhance a sentence for a later crime is inconsistent with Ohio’s system for juveniles, which is predicated on the fact that children are not as culpable for their acts as adults and should be rehabilitated rather than punished.  Under Apprendi, using a prior conviction to enhance a sentence does not violate the constitutional right to due process, because the prior process involved the right to a jury trial.  Juveniles, however, are not afforded the right to a jury trial.  Quite simply, a juvenile adjudication is not a conviction of a crime and should not be treated as one.

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