Jail Or Rehab: The Debate Over How We Discipline Young Criminals In Ohio

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At 14, most girls don't know where they are, much less where they're going.  But Don Kirwin says his daughter Amanda was shooting for the stars ever since she was old enough to sing. Lots of little girls want to be famous when they grow up, but Amanda had a strategy.

"She had a whole book full of stuff [about] the singing and how she was going to get to Hollywood or how she was going to get on American Idol,” Kirwin explains. “She was going to send [the show] 100 emails a day until they responded to her."

In August 2014, Amanda's dreams were forever silenced.  Her father was out of town when he got the phone call that Amanda was dead.

Columbus police say Amanda was hanging out on Dana Avenue talking to some friends when she was killed by gunfire.  Detectives say she wasn't the intended target; a devastating case of wrong place at the wrong time. 

Amanda's killer was just a child himself.

Police arrested 16-year old Donald Loper IV. Just three months earlier, Loper faced serious delinquent charges after police say he threatened to kill a woman, attacked her son, and smashed a car window with a crowbar. 

"If they would have treated him the same way they treat an adult, maybe he wouldn't have been there to do that,” Kirwin wonders.

 

The Dilemma

Professor Katherine Federle teaches law at the Ohio State University and says research shows punishing young criminals by locking them up is counterproductive because it could wipe out a child's positive support network, and even further criminalize them.

Between 1997 and 2013, the number of young people incarcerated in Ohio dropped about 80 percent, in part, because of a program called RECLAIMS.  The behavioral health initiative is designed to help transform troubled teens into productive members of society.

However, there was community outcry when a Pickerington teenager who tried to abduct two women in his neighborhood was allowed to play for the high school football team.  

In Nelsonville, Hocking College caught criticism when Trent May was named quarterback of its football team.  In 2013, May was convicted of raping a girl at an alcohol-fueled party and spent two years in jail.   

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien says the goal of juvenile court is to help young people, but he adds it's becoming increasingly difficult to detain teens who commit crimes as serious as armed robbery.  “Is it more likely that someone would be released who we believe is a risk today than 5 or 10 years ago?  I think the answer is yes.”

10TV has uncovered a dozen examples of violent crimes committed by teens who have a lengthy history with the juvenile court.

In October 2014, Jim Crabtree was shot and killed on Cassady Avenue while he was delivering pizzas.   He had switched shifts with another employee so he could take his daughter trick-or-treating the night he was slain.  Police arrested 16-year-old Diondre Jefferson and charged him with murder.  

10TV researched Jefferson's juvenile court file and learned he was in trouble prior to the shooting for punching a teacher, assault, and threatening to shoot someone.   He is currently serving 18 years-to-life behind bars for Crabtree’s slaying.

18-year-old Sean Fletcher (and Jefferson’s accomplice) was also charged with murder in connection to the case.

“They’re armed and dangerous felons. Period.”

Consider 16-year-old Jordyn Wade, currently charged with the kidnappings and execution-style murders of four people at a home on Hudson Avenue last June.  The teen had faced the juvenile court several times for setting a fire in a school bathroom and driving a car with a loaded gun.

In 2009, 18-year-old Dwann Allen was indicted for murdering his girlfriend's 22-month-old daughter just hours before he was set to face a juvenile judge for robbing a fast food restaurant.  A month before the murder, prosecutors asked the juvenile court to lock up Allen for violating probation.  He was instead ordered to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet.    

Jason Pappas is the president of the Fraternal Order of Police says officers are frustrated by arresting violent young criminals only to be told the teens won’t be detained -- not even until they face a judge.  “You can’t just turn away – immediately - armed and dangerous felons because they’re children.  They’re armed and dangerous felons. “

Franklin County Lead Juvenile Judge, Elizabeth Gill, says the court tries to balance the best interest of the child with public safety.   “If we had a crystal ball, we would be the very best juvenile court system in the world,” said Gill.  The judge added it would be easy to lock teens up and throw away the key, but says that’s not the goal of the system.  “We don’t view this as a hug and release process.  This isn’t mean to be ‘Junior, a smack on your hand,  go out and be a good boy.’  We are trying very hard to be smarter on crime.   Not soft on crime.  Smarter on crime,” said Gill.   “Because juvenile crime, if not treated, if not worked with, has a high likelihood to become adult crime.”

Professor Federle says when you look at the big picture; Ohio isn't protecting the public by warehousing young criminals behind bars for the sake of "not letting them get away it."

"What we're doing instead is spending millions of dollars to criminalize a population that will continue to re-offend and re-offend."

Pappas says he agrees many children can be rehabilitated, but believes the court is putting the public in danger by failing to assess children who are beyond help.

At the center of the debate is a grieving father.

"There's just that hole that you feel,” Kirwin mourns.  “That's the best way I can explain it: a hole.  And there's nothing that can fill it in.  It's just there."

Amanda’s dad says he only knows his child didn’t get a second chance and hopes Ohio's juvenile justice system can strike a better balance between rehabilitating young criminals, and eliminating opportunities to commit new crimes.

“[F]inding a solution that's better than what's happening now would be my hope.”