Merit Decision. Punishing Juvenile Sex Offenders. In Re C.P.

Update: On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states cannot impose a mandatory life sentence with no possiblity of parole upon juvenile offenders involved in  homicide offenses.  The 5-to-4 decision came in the companion cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. This decision follows the 2010  precedent  in  Graham v. Florida, holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile offender who has not committed a homicide offense.

Analysis of In Re CP.

On April 3, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a blockbuster juvenile law decision, In Re CP, 2012-Ohio-1446.  This 5-2 opinion, written by Justice Paul Pfeifer, strikes down R.C. 2152.86, a registration and notification requirement provision for certain juvenile offenders. This statute is part of Ohio’s Adam Walsh Act.

This opinion is a must read.  It really lays out two totally different philosophies about punishing juvenile sex offenders. Justice Pfeifer was able to command a comfortable majority for the rehabilitative view.  But Justices Terrence O’Donnell and Robert Cupp were far less forgiving in their dissenting positions. 

15 year-old C.P. was charged with a number of sex offenses in Athens County Juvenile Court.  The victim was a six year old boy who was a relative.   The juvenile court judge declined to transfer the case to adult court.  C.P. was adjudicated delinquent, and given a three year minimum commitment to the Ohio Department of Youth Services on each count. C.P. was also designated a Serious Youthful Offender (SYO) in regard to each offense. As part of the SYO disposition, the Court imposed three concurrent five year prison terms which were stayed pending his successful completion of his juvenile disposition.  For an explanation of Ohio’s Serious Youthful Offender statutes, read this post.

R.C. 2152.86 creates a new classification called public-registry-qualified-juvenile-offender-registrants ((PRQJORs).  This PRQJOR status is imposed upon juveniles who are 14-17 when the offense was committed, have been adjudicated delinquent for committing certain sexually oriented offenses when the victim is under 12, or aggravated murder, murder or kidnapping with purpose to gratify the sexual needs or desires of the offender.

The juvenile court judge classified C.P. as a PRQJOR. By statute, C.P. was also automatically classified as a Tier III sex-offender/child victim offender.

PRQJORs must comply with all the reporting and notification requirements for adult Tier III sexual offenders as set forth in Chapter 2950.  The statute imposes lifetime registration and community notification requirements on this category of juvenile sex offenders, including placement on a public internet registry.  PRQJORs receive no reclassification hearing upon completion of their juvenile disposition. They become eligible for reclassification 25 years after their statutory registration obligations start.

C.P. appealed his automatic classification as a Tier III juvenile-offender registrant and as a PRQJOR, to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which unanimously affirmed. C.P. argues that these automatic classification, registration, and notification requirements violate due process, equal protection, and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.   An Ohio Supreme Court majority found the statute violated due process and the ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

 In State v. Williams, a case involving an adult sex offender, the Ohio high court had previously held that the registration and notification requirements in R.C. Chapter 2950 are punitive, not civil, in nature.  So that issue was not challenged again, although the dissenters in this case reaffirm their disagreement with that holding.

 The majority in the C.P. case relied heavily on two U.S. Supreme Court decisions which banned certain punishments for juvenile offenders—Roper v. Simmons,which bans the death penalty for juveniles who committed their crimes before the age of 18, and Graham v. Florida, holding that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of a sentence of life without the possibility of parole on a juvenile offender who has not committed a homicide offense.

 The majority decision to strike down R.C. 2152.86 was based on a number of factors carefully analyzed by Justice Pfeifer.  First on the list is the lack of a national consensus favoring the publication of personal information of juvenile offenders.  Ohio was the first state to adopt an Adam Walsh statute—Congress had threatened states that did not comply with crime-control funding cut-offs.  So Ohio had instituted a system most of the rest of the nation later rejected, and is out of sync with current views on this.

Other factors cited by the majority are its belief that juvenile offenders are less culpable and more likely to change than adult offenders, and the special harshness of lifetime registration and notification requirements for a juvenile. Justice Pfeifer described the latter as “forcing a juvenile to wear a statutorily imposed scarlet letter as he embarks on his adult life.”

 “Registration and notification necessarily involve stigmatization. For a juvenile offender, the stigma of the label of sex offender attaches at the start of his adult life and cannot be shaken….Before a juvenile can even begin his adult life, before he has a chance to live on his own, the world will know of his offense. He will never have a chance to establish a good character in the community. He will be hampered in his education, in his relationships, and in his work life. His potential will be squelched before it has a chance to show itself. A juvenile…who is subject to sex-offender notification will have his entire life evaluated through the prism of his juvenile adjudication. It will be a constant cloud, a once-every-three-month reminder to himself and the world that he cannot escape the mistakes of his youth….,” wrote Pfeifer.

 Finally, the majority found that the lifetime registration and notification provisions of R.C. 2152.86 directly conflict with the fundamental purpose of a juvenile disposition, which is rehabilitation.

 The majority also found the registration and notification requirements for PRQJORs violated the Ohio Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, found at Article I Section 9. (See, post on the New Judicial Federalism here.) While acknowledging that cases involving cruel and unusual punishment under the state constitution are rare, the Court found lack of proportionality the key factor in also finding a state constitutional violation.  Especially significant in that regard are the complete lack of discretion in the juvenile judge over the portion of the penalty that could last a lifetime, and  the very public nature of the punishment that runs counter to the confidentiality of the juvenile justice system and its rehabilitative goals.

 The Court also found that R.C. 2152.86 violates a juvenile’s right to due process under the federal and state constitutions because of the elimination of all discretion of the juvenile judge at “the most consequential part of the dispositional process.” “The requirement in R.C. 2152.86 of automatic imposition of Tier III classification on a juvenile offender who receives an SYO dispositional sentence undercuts the rehabilitative purpose of Ohio’s juvenile system and eliminates the important role of the juvenile court’s discretion in the disposition of juvenile offenders and thus fails to meet the due process requirement of fundamental fairness,” Pfeifer wrote.

Justices O’Donnell and Cupp both wrote very passionate dissents in this case.  

Justice O’Donnell went into specific and very graphic detail about C.P.’s sex offenses, not just in this case, but in several others while he lived in Utah. His distaste for the conduct of this particular juvenile is quite palpable.  Unlike the majority, he does not believe that registration and notification requirements are punitive, but rather civil in nature, and thus cannot constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  That ship, however, has sailed.  He also criticizes the majority for substituting its judgment for that of the General Assembly—a common criticism for him.  He sees the statute as enacted pursuant to the legislature’s authority, and “with the intent to protect the safety and welfare of the public.”  He also sees no due process violation, finding “discretion is a matter of grace and not of right.”

 Justice Cupp was indignant that the majority would even compare the punishment in this case with the punishment in Graham- lifetime imprisonment with no chance of parole.  “I am left wondering how the two can possibly be considered comparable for constitutional purposes,” he wrote, “ I do not find the requirements at issue here pertaining to registration and notification to rise to such a level as to be even remotely comparable.” He simply does not find that the disproportionality rises to constitutional dimensions. He also finds that R.C. 2152.86 provides adequate procedural safeguards, and satisfies due process. He thinks the majority decision will create a Pandora’s box of unanswered questions for juvenile judges.

 Case Syllabus

To the extent that it imposes automatic, lifelong registration and notification requirements on juvenile sex offenders tried within the juvenile system, R.C. 2152.86 violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 9, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Ohio Constitution, Article I, Section 16.

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3 Responses to Merit Decision. Punishing Juvenile Sex Offenders. In Re C.P.

  1. Margie Slagle says:

    Although this decision applies solely to juveniles, the court made very powerful conclusions that could help all adult offenders challange AWA lifetime regristration under a substantive due process claim. The court recognized that lifetime registration may offer minimal public protection without an individual determination of dangerousness.

    Equally important, the court concluded that the internet registry and public notification “causes the greatest possible stigmatization” and is a “statutorily imposed
    scarlet letter.”

    Although Justice O’Donnell is correct that the Supreme Court has held that offense based registration does not violate procedural due process, the Court did not address whether lifetime registration without an individual risk determination violates substantive due process.

    This decision suggests that applying AWA to adults may violate substantive due process.

  2. Amy Grover says:

    The language in this opinion seems to indicate the court’s willingness to reconsider juvenile sex offender registration in general- not just for PRQJORs. Although the court does emphasize the lack of discretion afforded juvenile judges as a key factor in its decision, there is excellent language regarding the punitive effects of registration and notification that can be used in the future to challenge ANY classification of juvenile sex offender. The question remains- if sex offender registration is punitive, how can a rehabilitative juvenile justice system impose it?

  3. Bart Rosenberg says:

    Well, the legislature certainly is out of touch here. “R.C. 2152.86 creates a new classification…sexually oriented offenses when the victim is under 12, or aggravated murder, murder or kidnapping with purpose to gratify the sexual needs or desires of the offender. (emphasis added) Rape and sexual assault are crimes of violence with sex used as a weapon.They have nothing to do with sexual needs or desires. Why doesn’t the legislature check in with psychologists, or groups like Women Helping Women”?

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