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State v. Aalim: Ending Mandatory Transfer of Youth to the Adult Court in Ohio

Posted in 2017, Campaigns, Voices Monday, 09 January 2017

By Jeree Thomas, CFYJ Policy Director

Right before the holidays, on December 22, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court decided State v. Aalim and wrote an opinion that is a gift of true due process for Ohio’s youth at risk of mandatory transfer to the adult criminal justice system. 

In State v. Aalim, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the state’s mandatory transfer statute which requires the transfer of youth to the adult system when they are a certain age and have committed a certain offense “violates juveniles’ right to due process as guaranteed by Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution.”  Aalim argued and the Court agreed that due process requires that every youth receive an opportunity to demonstrate capacity to change, that youth is a mitigating, not aggravating factor, that the mandatory statute’s irrefutable presumption to transfer is fundamentally unfair, and that youth have a right to have their individual characteristics considered at every stage in a proceeding, not just sentencing.  As a result, the mandatory transfer statute does not provide due process, and is therefore unconstitutional. 

The Court strikes down the statute under Ohio’s Constitution, but it leverages the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent related to juvenile sentencing to bolster its decision.  In the opinion, Justice Lanzinger cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s explanation in Miller v. Alabama of the ways youth are different than adults: (1) immaturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility (2) vulnerability to negative outside influences, and finally (3) children’s characters are not fully formed, and therefore amendable to rehabilitation.  As a result, the Ohio Supreme Court finds that youth should be taken into account not only at sentencing, but when making the critical decision of whether a youth should be prosecuted as an adult at all. 

While State v. Aalim is limited to Ohio, it has national significance.  14 states have mandatory transfer statutes similar to Ohio’s statute.  Like Ohio’s statute, once a juvenile court judge verifies a youth’s age and finds probable cause that an offense occurred and the youth could be the offender, the decision to transfer the youth is completely out of the judge’s hands. The judge with the greatest amount of experience and understanding of the social history, trauma history, and mental health needs of youth is removed from the equation.  In Ohio, the Supreme Court has placed decision making back in the capable hands of juvenile court judges, and for the 13 other states with mandatory transfer statutes, State v. Aalim provides a road map for doing the same in their states.

For youth, families, and advocates in those states with similar mandatory transfer provisions, let’s hope that State v. Aalim is the gift that keeps on giving and results in a push to end mandatory transfer of youth to the adult system.