by Erik Ault
The Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC) held a public hearing at the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on December 6th to raise awareness about children in the justice system.
When a minor is tried and incarcerated as an adult, it is called “bindover.” There are circumstances which require mandatory bindover, such as the defendant’s age and the nature of their offense, but there are cases when it is up to the judge to decide where the defendant’s case will be tried, either in the juvenile court or regular court system. When a judge decides that a minor’s case should be decided by the regular court, it is called discretionary bindover. According to Ben Sperry, co-chair of the Youth Bindover Team at GCC, discretionary bindover in Cuyahoga County is being abused.
“The more we educated ourselves, the more we were disturbed at what we were finding,” he said. “We’re here tonight to share with you what we’ve learned.”
The first speaker from the team was Leah Winsberg, a staff attorney with Children’s Law Center, Inc. “When a child is transferred to adult court, they’re denied the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile justice system entirely,” she announced. She shared that the rise of bindover began in the 90s when people were concerned about “Super Predators” bringing a wave of criminality. Due to paranoia about criminals getting off easy, judges began trying minors in the adult system more frequently. This happens mainly to children of color, she said. Instead of being rehabilitated, minors exposed to the adult justice system are often traumatized and face mental health hurdles that are not addressed. This experience can trap a minor in the justice system. In other words, a youth who faces bindover to the adult courts has very little hope of being rehabilitated.
According to Katherine Soto, assistant state public defender in the Youth Defense Department of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, felony adjudications among youth are actually decreasing, including in Cuyahoga County. She showed this data to highlight that there is not a pressing need for minors to be bound over. Sensationalist headlines frightening people about remorseless youths do not give an accurate representation of youth crime, and the actions of the justice system should not be based on them. Despite other counties in Ohio decreasing bindover, Cuyahoga County maintains high use of discretionary bindover. In 2020, Cuyahoga County transferred 78 minors to the adult courts. In the same year, Franklin County, which encompasses Columbus and has a higher population, transferred seven.
After the presentations, a panel discussion was held. “It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about being informed, research driven, evidence based and strategic,” Leah Winsberg said. “These approaches are going to get us a long-term impact on reduced crime,” he added.
“The priorities and goals of Cuyahoga and every society should absolutely include protecting the most vulnerable citizens,” TaKesha Smith, executive director and policy director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition said. “We need to view our children’s success as what it is, which is our success. Our only guarantee of future success is that children are protected and able to rehabilitate when they make mistakes and able to join society effectively, successfully, ready to be productive. That is our guarantee of future success.”
Citizens who are interested in learning more about what they can do to address the issue of bindover can visit greaterclevelandcongregations.org to get involved.