By Marianna Bettman
On April 3, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a blockbuster juvenile law decision, in re: C.P. 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.
Citizens often complain they have no idea who to vote for in a judicial election. This opinion tells voters a lot. It lays out two totally different philosophies about the punishment of juveniles. 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.
The 15 year-old C.P. was charged with a number of sex offenses in Athens County Juvenile Court. The victim was a 6-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.
R.C. 2152.86 creates a new classification of juvenile sex offender 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. 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.
The Ohio Supreme Court majority found that the statute, with its automatic classification, registration and notification requirements, violated due process and the ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The Ohio high court had previously held that the adult registration and notification requirements were 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 Ohio 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 exceptional 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.”
Pfiefer wrote, “[R]egistration 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…”
Finally, the majority found that the lifetime registration and notification provisions for PRQJORs 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. 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 this 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, which 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.”
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. The Court, however, has previously decided otherwise. O’Donnell 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 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.