In Sharper Focus: Understanding the Constitutional Challenges to Ohio’s Serious Youthful Offender Statute

Update: Read an analysis of the merit decision in the J.V. case here.

Ohio’s Serious Youthful Offender statute works like this.  The statute allows for a “blended” sentence, which is part juvenile disposition, part adult sentence. First, if warranted, in addition to the juvenile disposition, the juvenile judge imposes a stayed adult sentence on a serious youthful offender. The adult portion of the sentence remains stayed unless the juvenile court judge later makes findings based on subsequent conduct by the juvenile, in which case the judge invokes the adult portion of the sentence.  That is what happened to J.V. in the case of In Re J.V. (read post here.)

In J.V.’s case the defense is arguing that if J.V. were an adult, there’s no way the court could get away with that. Defense counsel argues that the section of the Ohio Youthful Offender statute that permits a judge, rather than a jury, to invoke the adult portion of a blended prison sentence, with findings based on clear and convincing evidence, violates a line of Sixth Amendment cases which the United States Supreme Court applied to adults.  These cases require that a jury, not a judge, make these kinds of findings, and by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Here is an explanation of the key cases on which the defense relies, which several of the Ohio justices asked about at J.V.’s oral argument.

In 2000, in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New Jersey hate crime statute that permitted a penalty enhancement if a judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that the act was motivated by bias.  In Apprendi, the sentencing judge used the penalty enhancement to increase the sentence beyond the prescribed statutory maximum for the underlying offense.  The high court later explained in Blakely that the “statutory maximum” is “the maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Apprendi that,  “[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt… ”

In 2002, in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down Arizona’ s capital punishment statute because it permitted the death penalty to be imposed based solely on a finding by a judge, not a jury, of statutory aggravating circumstances.

In 2004, in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, the U.S. Supreme Court applied Apprendi and struck down Washington’s criminal sentencing procedures that allowed a judge rather than a jury to make findings that increased the penalty beyond the statutory maximum.  Washington used a sentencing grid system, like the then-federal sentencing guidelines, with a presumptive range of sentences for various offenses. Judges could increase the maximum presumptive sentence for a variety of reasons.  In the Blakely case, the judge added an extra 37 months onto the defendant’s presumptive kidnapping sentence because at the sentencing hearing the judge found the additional factors of deliberate cruelty in a domestic violence offense. Justice Scalia’s 5-4 majority opinion in Blakely held that the Washington system, which allowed judges to make findings that increased a sentence beyond the presumptive range for the crime, violated the defendant’s Sixth amendment rights. The facts supporting increased sentences had to be found by a jury, and found beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Also of importance in understanding J.V.’s  case is  State v. D.H., 120 Ohio St.3d 540, 2009-Ohio-9.  In that case, the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld the constitutionality of the section of the Serious Youthful Offender statute which permits a judge to impose a  stayed adult sentence upon a juvenile offender after considering a number of statutory factors. But in paragraph 37 of that opinion, the Court noted, “Since the adult portion of D.H.’s sentence has not been invoked, this opinion does not address the constitutional ramifications of invoking the adult sentence under R.C. 2152.14 in light of Blakely and Foster.”

That day has now arrived in J.V.’s case.



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