Despite Flat Crime Rates, More Cleveland-Area Young People Are Being Tried As Adults

District Attorney Michael O’Malley’s 2016 election was viewed by some as a win for Black Lives Matter, but the number of children transferred to adult court in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has increased more than 100 percent.

Brandon Cline, left, with his family soon after he was incarcerated
Courtesy of Audrey Cline

Despite Flat Crime Rates, More Cleveland-Area Young People Are Being Tried As Adults

District Attorney Michael O’Malley’s 2016 election was viewed by some as a win for Black Lives Matter, but the number of children transferred to adult court in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has increased more than 100 percent.

On the heels of widespread protests over District Attorney Timothy McGinty’s refusal to prosecute the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Michael O’Malley’s 2016 win made national headlines. It was viewed by some as a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

But since he took office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, even while crime has remained flat or fallen, the number of young people sent to adult court has increased more than 100 percent, according to a fact sheet released today by the ACLU of Ohio, the Juvenile Justice Coalition, and the Children’s Law Center. 

Last year, 100 young people in Cuyahoga County were tried as adults, according to the fact sheet. In 2017, O’Malley’s first year in office, 91 were transferred to adult court, up from 49 the year before, according to the fact sheet. Such transfers are known in Ohio as bindovers. 

“The rise really is in large part attributable to the choices made by prosecutors,” said Kelly McConaughey, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition in Ohio. “They could severely limit the harmful practice. That’s what we would like to see. No other county in Ohio has the same bindover rates.” 

O’Malley’s office declined to comment on his office’s use of bindovers. 

While Cuyahoga County is sending more youth to adult court, there’s a growing awareness nationwide of the harms associated with the practice. Young people tried as adults, researchers say, are more likely to receive harsh sentences and recidivate than those in the juvenile system, and typically receive fewer services. Having adult charges on their records can limit their opportunities for housing, employment, and education, noted Claire Chevrier, advocacy counsel for the ACLU of Ohio.

“It can be a lifelong struggle to have an adult conviction,” said Chevrier. “It seems like a surprising choice from a prosecutor’s office to send youth to adult court because we know there are worse outcomes.” 

Cuyahoga County has long been an outlier when it comes to prosecuting children as adults. Franklin County, for instance, which has a population comparable to Cuyahoga and is home to Columbus, reported far fewer transfers to adult court—19 in fiscal year 2018, according to a report from the Ohio Department of Youth Services published in February.

Each year since fiscal year 2009, Cuyahoga County has tried more youth as adults than any other county in the state, according to the department’s report.  But the problem has worsened in recent years, according to advocates. In fiscal year 2018, 89 children were tried as adults, the highest number since fiscal year 2009. 

The vast majority of those transferred to adult court in Cuyahoga County and throughout Ohio are Black, according to the department’s report. In fiscal year 2018, 82 percent of youth transferred to adult court statewide were Black; in Cuyahoga County, more than 94 percent were Black.

“It’s a reflection of, not just system-based, but societal, racism,” said Acena Beck, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “Youth of color, especially young men and boys, they’re more perceived by the system to be adults.”

The decision about which children should be tried as adults is based on the charges prosecutors choose to file. Young people who are 16 or older and charged with murder or attempted murder in Ohio are automatically transferred to adult court in what’s called a mandatory bindover. A 16-year-old charged with aggravated assault, however, would not automatically be transferred to adult court unless there was a firearm present or the person had previously been committed to a state youth facility for certain offenses, explained Chevrier.

Discretionary bindovers are even more subjective. A prosecutor can seek a discretionary bindover for a 14-year-old charged with a felony who is not “amenable to care or rehabilitation within the juvenile system,” according to state statute. For discretionary bindovers, a judge determines if the case goes to juvenile or adult court. 

“It’s clear to us that this is widely based on prosecutor discretion,” said Chevrier. “A lot of this has to do with who is in the prosecutor’s office.”

As Cuyahoga increases the number of children it tries as adults, more and more states are passing legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility. As of Oct. 1, New York no longer automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Starting Dec. 1,16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina who are charged with nonviolent offenses will no longer be tried as adults. And last week, the Michigan legislature sent a bill to Governor Gretchen Whitmer that would limit, based on the type of offense, when 17-year-olds can be tried as adults.  

But, as with Ohio’s statute, a young person’s fate will still largely depend on the prosecutor’s charging decisions and whether the offense is considered violent or nonviolent.

Brandon Cline experienced the trauma of an adult conviction firsthand, according to his mother, Audrey Cline. At 17, he was bound over to adult court in Clark County, Ohio, and ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for burglary and failure to comply with a police order, she said. 

“He needed help, not punishment,” Audrey told The Appeal of her son. “He just needed help and guidance.”

While he was incarcerated, Brandon wrote letters to the Children’s Law Center for its Bound Over Youth Case Profile Project, an initiative to share stories from those transferred to adult court. 

In his letters, he detailed his plans for the future: possibly a career in culinary arts, computer engineering, or architecture. “My main thing is I want to have a family of my own,” he wrote. “I need to get stable financially first.”

In 2017, at 25, he was released but struggled to adjust, Audrey told The Appeal. She encouraged him to see a counselor, but he refused. 

Less than a year after he came home, on Aug. 30, 2018, Brandon died by suicide, she said.

“It was so hard for him to acclimate and get accustomed to going away as a child, coming out as what everyone perceived as an adult,” Audrey said. “He went from being told when he could basically go to the bathroom or when he had to go to sleep to ‘Here’s this world, have at it. Good luck.’”

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