March 13, 2013
Juvenile Sentencing

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In the Ohio criminal justice system, juvenile proceedings are fundamentally different from adult criminal trials. Those differences were the focus of a case that we reviewed here – at the Supreme Court of Ohio – involving a juvenile we’ll refer to as J.V.

In June 2005, in accordance with a plea agreement, a trial court found J.V. delinquent and guilty of one count of felonious assault, and one count of aggravated robbery. Because J.V. had used a gun in committing his crimes, the charges also included firearm and serious-youthful-offender specifications.

The court imposed a blended sentence: at least two years at the Ohio Department of Youth Services (“DYS”) and an adult sentence of three years. The adult sentence was stayed, meaning that if J.V. behaved during his two years at DYS, he wouldn’t have to serve the additional time. But near the end of his DYS sentence J.V. was involved in a fight that led the trial court to invoke the stayed adult sentence.

In response, J.V.’s attorneys appealed, but the court of appeals affirmed the invocation of the stayed adult sentence. After that, his case came before us for a final review.

On appeal, J.V.’s attorneys presented several arguments, the first of which claimed that the invocation of an adult prison sentence upon a juvenile violates the United States and Ohio Constitutions.

The Ohio legislature authorized the imposition of blended sentences in 2002 in order to give juvenile courts more flexibility in handling violent juvenile offenders. Prior to that, juvenile courts had the choice of two extremes: it could treat the child as a juvenile, committing him to DYS until he turned 21, or it could treat the child as an adult and transfer the case to the common pleas court, depriving the child of a chance at rehabilitation and exposing the child to an adult sentence in an adult prison.

But J.V.’s attorneys argued that the juvenile-sentencing law violated J.V.’s right to a trial by jury because it allows the judge to substitute his own judgment instead of relying on the findings of a jury. In making that argument, they relied on a series of court decisions that state that “any fact that increases the penalty for a crime” must be submitted to a jury.

But we determined that those cases do not apply to J.V.’s situation. Why not?  J.V. was sentenced to a blended sentence. The adult portion of the sentence was stayed, “pending the successful completion of the traditional juvenile” sentence. When the juvenile court invoked the stayed sentence – after J.V. failed to complete his juvenile sentence – the judge did not increase J.V.’s sentence; he merely removed the stay. The sentence had already been imposed.

Furthermore, juveniles do not enjoy a right to a trial by jury. That’s not to say that juries play no role, but they’re not required. That is one of the main differences between juvenile and adult courts.

We therefore concluded that when an invocation hearing is properly conducted – as it was in this case – the juvenile’s right to a trial by jury is not even implicated, let alone violated.

J.V.’s attorneys also took issue with the juvenile-sentencing law’s burden of proof requirement, which is a “clear-and-convincing-evidence” standard. They argued that when invoking the adult sentence, the burden of proof should be the same as it is in a criminal trial – the “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt” standard.

We disagreed. The invocation hearing is not a criminal proceeding. Therefore, the fact-finding need not be according to the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard that is required in criminal trials.

The clear-and-convincing-evidence standard of the juvenile-sentencing law is less rigorous, though stronger than a mere “preponderance-of-the-evidence” standard. The clear-and-convincing-evidence standard requires the judge to have a firm belief or conviction about the facts presented. We concluded that there is nothing fundamentally unfair about a law that authorizes a judge to reach conclusions about facts according to a clear-and-convincing-evidence standard.

In this case, J.V. had notice of the invocation hearing, he was present at the hearing, he had legal representation, he had the opportunity to present evidence at the hearing, and he had the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses called by the state. The court complied with the requirements of the law.

We therefore determined that J.V. was not denied due process based on the fact that the trial court reached factual conclusions according to a clear-and-convincing-evidence standard.

J.V.’s attorneys made one other argument regarding his sentence: they maintained that the juvenile court did not have jurisdiction over J.V. when it sentenced him in February 2010.

In making that argument, his attorneys relied on the section of the juvenile-sentencing law which states, “The juvenile court has jurisdiction over a person who is adjudicated a delinquent child ... prior to attaining eighteen years of age until the person attains twenty-one years of age.”

This language is straightforward. It states that juvenile courts have jurisdiction over adjudicated delinquents until they are 21 years old. The obvious flip side of that statement is that juvenile courts do not have jurisdiction over adjudicated delinquents once they are 21 years old.

We determined that there was no need for us to interpret the language of that law; we only needed to apply the facts of this case to the law. J.V. turned 21 on March 11, 2009. Accordingly, the juvenile court had no jurisdiction over him after that date. Nevertheless, in February 2010, it held a sentencing hearing to correct the original juvenile sentence, which did not mention postrelease control.

However, based on the plain language in the law, the juvenile court did not have jurisdiction over J.V.  On this issue we determined – by a five-to-two vote – that there was no doubt that the juvenile court acted outside its jurisdiction and therefore that the sentence issued in February 2010 was void.

It was an unfortunate result, one that was not intended when the law was enacted, but as Justice Yvette McGee Brown noted, “This case has revealed a gap in the law that should be addressed by the legislature.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is In re J.V., 134 Ohio St.3d 1, 2012-Ohio-4961. Case No. 2011-0107. Decided October 30, 2012. Majority opinion written by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.