The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

April 5, 2012

Ohio justices debate legal consult for juveniles

COLUMBUS —  The Ohio Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to require juvenile offenders facing the possibility of detention to consult with an attorney before deciding to waive their right to a lawyer.

Current court rules don’t require such a meeting, and the proposal is pitting youth advocates against some judges who say the requirement hinders the rights of parents and juveniles to make the decision themselves.

The push for the change is almost a decade old, dating to a 2003 American Bar Association report that found many poor children in the state routinely waived their right to an attorney. Three years later, an analysis of 2004 state data found that two in every three children facing a juvenile charge did so without an attorney.

“There’s a culture in a lot of counties that doesn’t really utilize public defenders or appointed counsel,” said Kim Tandy, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Covington, Ky.

The proposal would make the consultation mandatory for all situations where a juvenile might face detention, even for something as minor as petty theft. An alternative, to make the consultation mandatory only for the most serious charges, doesn’t go far enough, Tandy said.

Juvenile judges in more than 60 counties have expressed their concern about the proposal, most voicing similar concerns about cost, court resources and the interference with parental authority.

Lake County Juvenile Court in Painesville has only two juvenile public defenders in a system that handles more than 3,000 juvenile cases a year, Christopher Simon, the court’s administration director, told the Supreme Court in a Feb. 27 letter.

“The time it would take for a Public Defender to have this discussion with the thousands of cases each year would certainly slow the court process,” he wrote.

Geauga County Juvenile Judge Timothy Grendell has gathered petitions from many judges as he challenges the proposal, which he says amounts to an unfunded mandate on counties already stretched thin.

“Juvenile judges are in the best position to explain the right to counsel to a juvenile and parents and to determine if and when legal counsel is appropriate for a juvenile based on the facts and circumstances of the case,” according to the petition Grendell has helped circulate.

Retired minister Ronald Payne supports the proposal, saying he’s convinced his teenage son avoided serious penalties as a high school student in the 1980s near Toledo when a rock he threw over an overpass as part of a game with friends accidentally hit a tractor-trailer.

A family friend offered his law firm’s help, and the boys got off with a severe reprimand from a juvenile magistrate and the cost of the damage to the truck, Payne said Wednesday.

“I don’t mean to say they weren’t responsible — they should have known better — but it was a stupid thing to do, not a malicious thing, and an attorney helped a magistrate see that,” said Payne.

The requirement is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Ohio Public Defender’s Office. It is opposed by judicial groups and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

Eight states require consultation with an attorney before waiving legal rights under certain circumstances, including Alaska, Florida and Maryland, and several others prohibit waiving the right to a lawyer in some form, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center.

———

Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at http://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.

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