Speeches

Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee Testimony
Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer
Ohio Sentencing Commission
Juvenile & Traffic Proposals
Sept. 22, 1999

The juvenile adjudication legislation from the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission that is now before the committee represents the most systemic change to such laws since the creation of Ohio’s juvenile justice system nearly 100 years ago.

These changes, if enacted, will make Ohio a safer place while at the same time providing the flexibility needed to get the right help, to the right child, at the right time.

The other Criminal Sentencing Commission legislative proposal I am here to address today is Senate Bill 176 which revises Ohio traffic code. While this legislation might not be as dramatic as the juvenile proposals it is fundamentally significant. Senate Bill 176 represents the first comprehensive review and overhaul of our traffic laws in memory. I hope you find that the proposals not only simplify the code, but ensure that the penalty fits the crime.

The General Assembly established the Ohio Sentencing Commission in 1990 with the intent of developing a comprehensive sentencing plan for the state. The Commission’s first report, the one concerning adult felonies, was presented to lawmakers in 1993, and resulted in numerous changes to Ohio’s criminal code contained in what was then called Senate Bill 2. Proposals concerning misdemeanors and another regarding traffic offenses were unveiled late last year.

All of us gathered here today owe a great debt to the members of the Sentencing Commission. Since the committee first met on April 17th 1997 commissioners met on 43 days. That does not reflect the number of ad hoc committee meetings and the late night phone calls to discuss ideas. Members of the Commission took time away from their families and their jobs. And I thank them very much.

Personally, I want to thank Senator Robert Latta. It is a scheduling struggle for a legislator to serve on a commission such as the sentencing commission between committee hearings, floor votes and long drives back to their district. But Senator Latta was a full participant. His quiet, but effective way of deliberating with us was a bonus to the work of the juvenile committee and the full commission.

Another major contributor is Butler County Common Please Judge Joe Bressler….who joins me here today. While chairing the Commission’s Juvenile Committee Judge Bressler was the epitome of patience and leadership.

Hamilton County Judge Sylvia Hendon also was instrumental in the revision. To the best of my recollection Judge Hendon was one of the few persons who earnestly requested to be appointed to the Juvenile Committee. Her determination to make a difference was important to the proposal before you today.

The input of Department of Youth Services Director Gino Natalucci-Persichetti was invaluable. His front-line experience provided insight into areas that might have gone unnoticed by the rest of the committee.

And as always…..the staff of the commission, under the very able leadership of David Diroll deserves so much of the credit for putting into bill form the concepts and ideas of the juvenile committee. There is no more precise, professional staff-work produced in any state office than in David Diroll’s office.

With respect to the juvenile proposals the flexibility of Senate Bill 179 would give Ohio the tools needed to effectively address either a rise or a decline in the juvenile crime rate. In other words these proposals are well suited for positioning Ohio for the future.

The recommendations start at the core of the system. The current mission of Ohio’s juvenile courts is to "remove the taint of criminality," a directive that guides the system toward the rehabilitation of young offenders. The Sentencing Commission proposes to expand that philosophy. Rehabilitation is still a goal, but it also would include protecting the public, holding the offender accountable, as well as restoring the victim.

One of the most novel aspects of this bill would create what we’re calling "blended sentences." Under the current system, a juvenile court judge has few options when dealing with a child accused of a serious felony. The judge can either keep the case in juvenile court or bind it over to the adult system.

The problem here is that at first look it is sometimes difficult to tell if a child is a "Dennis-The-Menace," or a "Billy-The-Kid." Does the child need a little guidance….or is he or she a serious public threat who would be better dealt with in adult court? The blended sentence would give judges and case workers the time to find out.

Essentially, a blended sentence addresses the most serious of crimes, and would allow a judge to simultaneously impose a juvenile disposition and an adult sentence. The adult portion typically would be suspended depending on the child’s efforts to rehabilitate.

If they make a break with their criminal past their case ends in the juvenile system. But if they commit more crimes, or refuse the assistance offered by the department of youth services, a juvenile judge could send them on to adult prison without the case being heard in common pleas court.

Due to the possibility of an adult sentence, constitutionally speaking, an adult-like process will have to be introduced into the juvenile system most notably the right to a jury trial. Anybody in this country facing adult felony charges has the right to a jury trial. So under this plan that right would be extended to juveniles accused of serious crimes.

Procedures to establish a juvenile’s mental competency also would be required. Legislative language regarding that issue is being drafted and will be proposed in the next few weeks for the committee’s consideration.

We understand that adding certain adult-like features could create logistical problems for juvenile courts due to the lack of jury boxes and other related infrastructure. But since only a small percentage of adult criminal cases are heard by a jury the Sentencing Commission does not predict that the juvenile system will in inundated with jury trials.

Another new proposal extended jurisdiction dovetails with the blended sentence. This would allow juvenile courts to retain jurisdiction over a juvenile offender until the age of 25. Again, this addresses the issue of getting the right help, to the right child, at the right time.

Under current law jurisdiction, and the rehabilitation that is provided by the Department of Youth Services, simply ends on the child’s 21st birthday. There is no regard for whether substance abuse treatment, or the rehabilitation is complete. They simply leave the system. That would change under the commission’s proposals.

There are a few other adult-like provisions that the Sentencing Commission is proposing to expand to the juvenile system. One that I think is important in view of the use of guns by juveniles is that a juvenile could be detained longer if a gun is used in the commission of a crime. If a juvenile uses the gun he or she could face an additional one to three years in detention. If they possessed a gun, but did not use it, a judge could increase the detention by one year.

A provision similar to what we all know as "Megan’s Law" also is being proposed for the juvenile system by the Commission. Ohio’s Sex Offender Registration Law does not apply to juveniles. Under Senate Bill 179 if the juvenile is considered a Serious Youthful Offender the community in which the child lives would be notified.

The last of the juvenile proposals I want to address is a direct reflection on the events of our society. The school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas a few years ago had a sobering impact on all our lives. Two very young children opened fire on their classmates.

We have been blessed that has not happened in Ohio, but if it did there would be nothing we could do with the younger of the two children. We would slap them on the wrist and send them on their way because Ohio juvenile court jurisdiction extends to only age twelve.

That is why the commission is proposing the age limit be lowered to age ten. While none of us relishes the thought of putting a ten year old on trial for murder if it happens Ohio’s courts need the tools to deal with the situation.

Of course nothing comes these days without a price tag. The Commission is proposing that the General Assembly appropriate an additional 14.2 million dollars to the state’s juvenile justice funding pool. That figure is based on the Commissions projections that 292 additional juveniles will be housed in Department of Youth Services facilities after a two year period.

I now would like to return my attention to Senate Bill 176, the bill sponsored by Senator Scott Oleslager that addresses Ohio’s traffic laws.

The first thing that many people will notice about this bill is that it makes traffic laws and penalties more concise. This should make it easier to understand and access for drivers and practitioners. That is one of the purposes for which the sentencing commission was created.

The Sentencing Commission re-evaluated the entire body of traffic law in order to make laws and penalties more consistent. This has never been done before. The laws have been passed as the General Assembly has seen fit, but this has resulted in a piecemeal traffic code often resulting in redundancies and inconsistencies.

For example, a driver who refused to take an alcohol intoxication test could face lower fines than somebody who took the test but failed. Under the proposal before the Senate a person who refuses the test would be presumed to be under the influence of alcohol.

The draft of this legislation is over 900 pages long so I will try to deal with only some of its major provisions. For example:

*The penalties for drunken driving vehicular homicide would increase and be easier to prove.

*A new vehicular manslaughter misdemeanor would cover deaths from accidental traffic violations in situations that today juries are reluctant to find guilt.

*It would reduce the penalty for people who have had too much to drink and are sitting behind the wheel of an automobile….but not operating the vehicle. The charge for that type of activity would be reduced to a first degree misdemeanor.

*It creates a new category of chronic speeder for anybody who receives three speeding tickets over a one year period.

If there is any trend it might be that the proposals would deal more harshly with the more serious violations while reducing the penalties for minor offenses.

As I said earlier the traffic proposals are not as dramatic as the juvenile legislation or the felony recommendations that were part of Senate Bill Two. But because the vast majority of people who have contact with the judicial system do so as a result of traffic violations these changes will have the greatest impact on Ohio citizens.

I would like to thank all members of the Ohio General Assembly for asking me to chair the Criminal Sentencing Commission. Few chief justices across the nation have been granted the privilege of participating in such a monumental review of law.

Thank you for allowing Judge Bressler and me to appear before the committee.