Saturday, September 29, 2001

Fewer options for city defendants

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two juvenile offenders in Hamilton County — one inside the city, one outside — can be charged with the same crime by the same prosecutor and appear before the same court.

        But only one of them — the county offender — would have the chance to clear his record through a juvenile diversion program.

        That is one of several disparities in the city and county criminal justice systems that Cincinnati Community Action Now — a race relations panel — proposed fixing Friday.

        The commission has worked with prosecutors and judges on a plan to give first-time juvenile offenders in the city the same opportunity to avoid a criminal prosecution that suburban offenders have.

        With an “unofficial docket” (the juvenile equivalent of an adult diversion program), first offenders would have the chance to be heard by a magistrate, who could impose community service or academic requirements which, if met, will keep the juvenile's record clean.

        CAN leaders said that, given the racial demographics of the city, it is reasonable to conclude that disparities like these have a disproportionately negative impact on African-Americans.

        “We have a great opportunity in the city to help our youth, especially first offenders, find their way out of the justice system and take steps to get their lives back on track,” said Bishop Herbert Thompson of the Episcopal Diocese, who is CAN's police and justice system team leader.

        The disparity “wasn't making any sense to us either,” said Tim Burke, an attorney who chairs CAN's Police and Justice System committee. “I don't know that anyone would think it's a bad idea” to correct it.

        The commission identified other ways to equalize the justice system:

        • Criminal charges for passing bad checks. County policy is that if a defendant pays it before the trial date, charges are dismissed. In Cincinnati, the check writer proceeds to trial whether it was paid or not.

        • The pre-trial diversion program can keep adults out of trial court if prosecutors believe they “probably will not offend again” and meet other requirements. This year, about 300-350 people in the county used this program. It does not exist in the city.

        Cincinnati CAN is working with City Prosecutor Ernest McAdams to implement the programs in Cincinnati.


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