When a Cincinnati boy appeared in juvenile court at age 11, psychologists said he was too immature and mentally unstable to understand the rape charge against him, says the Cincinnati Enquirer. The judge had little choice but to set him free. The boy, now 17, spendtthe next six years amassing a rap sheet that included accusations of stealing stereo equipment, breaking into cars, and beating neighbors with bricks, boards, and fists. Almost every case – 34 in all – ended the same way: The child could not be prosecuted because he did not understand what was going on in court.
The boy’s cycle of crime continued for years because of a gaping hole in Ohio’s juvenile justice system, one that allows incompetent offenders to dodge punishment while depriving them of the help they often need. Judges say the system serves no one well. Victims watch offenders go free, communities suffer as juveniles commit more crimes and taxpayers spend up to $1,200 on each competency evaluation and thousands of dollars more on court hearings. Last year, officials in Ohio’s Hamilton County did more than 500 evaluations to determine the competency of 228 juveniles – about 3 percent of all kids charged with crimes. More than half of the juveniles evaluated were declared incompetent. Judges say the problem is the lack of an state law that defines juvenile competency and gives judges some legal options if they determine a child is unfit for court. Existing law tells them only that an incompetent child cannot stand trial. That often leaves judges with a dubious choice: Set the kids free or try to steer them into treatment programs that may not be suitable for juveniles who commit crimes.Said one judge: “This is a huge, dirty secret that the state of Ohio does not want unearthed.”