Sunday, February 06, 2000

Juvenile-justice reform in jeopardy


The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three years of work on sweeping reforms of Ohio's juvenile-justice system may be in jeopardy because some state lawmakers fear the changes would make them appear to be soft on crime.

        Motivated in part by shocking stories of young children committing murder, state lawmakers in 1996 approved a law requiring judges to automatically transfer some young offenders to adult court.

        “Adult crime means adult crime,” became a mantra during political campaigns that year.

        But many of those who work in the juvenile-justice system contend the law ended up making it easier for some offenders to escape punishment. A state commission set up to study changes in Ohio's criminal sentencing laws told lawmakers it would be smarter to keep young offenders in juvenile jails for longer periods, rather than sending them to adult prisons.

        An October 1997 investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer found that one-third of 577 Hamilton County juveniles transferred to adult court and convicted since 1989 had received probation. More than half of the 138 juveniles transferred, or bound over, in 1989 and 1990 went on to commit another felony.

        Last year the commission recommended cutting back on the number of mandatory transfers to adult court and raising the age at which an offender could be held in juvenile jail, to 25 from 21. Juvenile jails generally offer more educational programs, treatment and counseling than adult prisons.

        But politicos with tough-on-crime reputations, including Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, and Attorney General Betty Montgomery, are cool to the idea.

        “The appearance of reducing penalties is a problem,” David Diroll, the commission's executive director, wrote in a Jan. 28 memo to panel members. “Rather than face a losing vote, we asked for more time to work on this.”

        One of the leading advocates of the changes is livid.

        “Certain factions think this bill is soft on crime, and others think it's almost barbaric,” said Judge Sylvia Hendon of Hamilton County Juvenile Court. “But we want them to understand that bindovers aren't accomplishing what legislators set out to do.”

        The thin line between the General Assembly and interest groups that lobby lawmakers was on display again last week.

        Susan Montgomery, an aide to state Rep. Greg Jolivette, R-Hamilton, left to become director of environment and health care policy for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

        While they're hired to work on official business, such as keeping track of legislation, appointments and constituent concerns, many legislative aides temporarily leave the state payroll late in the election season to work on campaigns.

        Aides also pop up as extras in campaign ads, earnestly listening to candidates outline their poll-tested agenda.

        Faced with the potential loss of $35 million a year in federal grants, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency last week named a new assistant director to oversee pollution control and prevention.

        Environmental activists are pushing the U.S. EPA to withdraw authority it granted to the state agency to administer federal pollution laws. They say a lack of response to Cincinnati-area polluters proves the state EPA isn't going its job.

        Officials at the federal EPA's Chicago office confirmed last week that the agency is investigating.

        Without referring to the dispute, the state EPA faxed a brief press release Tuesday announcing that Barbara Brdicka will be the agency's new assistant director. She previously was chief of the agency's Division of Solid and Infectious Waste Management.

        “Barbara Brdicka has been an outstanding manager who has worked to improve many Ohio EPA programs,” Christopher Jones, the agency's director, said in a prepared statement. “I am confident that she will help to achieve my goals of consistency, fairness and open communication.”

        Michael Hawthorne covers state government for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He can be reached at (614) 224-4640.


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