When Miriam Jones discovered the Children's Law Center after weeks of searching for help with her grandchildren's case, she says she almost fell over.
"Somebody cares!" she said.
Based in Covington but expanding to Ohio, the Children's Law Center is a legal service center established in 1989. Its goal is to protect the rights of children through legal representation, research, policy work, training and education of attorneys and others about the rights of children. All of their services are free to children and families.
Jones (a pseudonym) says caution is necessary because her grandchildren's case hasn't been heard yet.
"We were told there may be retaliation," she says.
The uncertainty she feels concerning legal protocol is typical of her experience with the criminal justice system since her grandchildren were arrested.
"It's a totally helpless feeling when no one will talk to you," Jones says. "The public defenders will not speak with parents at all.
They say they work for the children, not the parents, and it's the children's best interest they're looking out for. I beg to differ. They speak only to the children. How are children going to understand? We were told that the kids understand the court system because they watch TV. I say, 'Garbage!' Children really don't understand the seriousness of some things. It's a very frightening situation."
Kim Brooks, executive director of the Children's Law Center, says Jones' feelings of helplessness and frustration aren't unique.
"Parents often contact us when they are frustrated with the systems in place designed to help their kids," Brooks says. "Frequently they are experiencing the dilemma of their child being yet another number among high caseloads or have a need where the child simply doesn't have access to an attorney."
Last year the center collaborated with the American Bar Association's National Juvenile Defender Center and the Juvenile Justice Coalition to research Ohio's defense system for indigent juveniles. The study included surveying of judges, magistrates, defense attorneys, detention center superintendents, interviews with hundreds of incarcerated youths and visits to juvenile courts.
In March 2003 the center released the report, Justice Cut Short: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Juvenile Delinquency Proceedings in Ohio.
"No particular counties were singled out," Brooks says. "We did use secondary data, however, available through county juvenile court annual reports, to indicate problem areas. In this respect, several areas were of concern regarding Hamilton County practices. For example, 25 percent of the kids in the adult prison system come from this county. Also, there were dozens of young kids being detained — and I mean kids as young as 8-10 years old — in the detention center."
The study found Hamilton County has the highest detention rate of any of the major metropolitan areas — 250 percent more per capita than Cleveland and 200 percent more per capita than Columbus, according to Brooks.
"Yet even with this high number, the felony adjudication rate is the same as Cleveland, so it is hard to make an argument we have kids committing more serious offenses here," she says. "Probably even more disturbing, however, is that 50 to 60 percent of kids in the delinquency system, by the county's own statistics, go without lawyers through this process. There are concerns not only about kids not getting lawyers, but the quality of representation provided as well."
Jones says the report opened her eyes.
"I read that report and was appalled," she says. "How many children are in there that don't need to be, because they were lost in the system? I'm afraid there's a lot of racial tones there. Much of it is political. They say children are read their rights. Tell me a frightened-to-death kid, handcuffed and thrown into a police car — in that kind of situation, what kid is going to think rationally? A lot of them, if they think they're innocent and they don't go with public defenders, they don't have a chance."
Juvenile Court Judge Thomas R. Lipps acknowledges the wide span of the report and the detailed work that went into it. However, he believes it has holes, especially regarding some of the positive aspects of the Hamilton County court system.
For example, Lipps says Hamilton County is the only county in Ohio to require public defenders for trials that could result in a child going to an adult jail.
"All the cases where kids are facing severe restraint of liberty — we make sure every one of those kids has an attorney," he says. "Some think all kids coming into juvenile court should have an attorney. I think it's wrong to force juvenile defendants and their parents to have an attorney if they don't want one and pay for it or have the taxpayer pay for it."
Lipps says there's another positive trait unique to Hamilton County Juvenile Court.
"We have a juvenile public defender's office right there in the courthouse," he says. "They'll see (juveniles) without an appointment there and then. It's very convenient and easy for them to have access to public defenders."
A lot of time went into preparing the report, but its criticism of Hamilton County is sometimes off the mark, according to Lipps.
"It appears to be critical of the fact that Hamilton County sends more kids over to adult systems than other counties," he says. "I think we're correct on this. Several years ago the legislature made mandatory some of the things we're doing here. There's a lot of good things about Hamilton County Juvenile Court, and I fear when I read these that people might think we're lousy courts."
Eileen Cooper Reed, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund Ohio, a nonprofit organization that does policy and advocacy work, says she speaks from experience when she criticizes the juvenile justice system.
"I know (the report) is accurate," she says. "I used to be a juvenile court referee. It's unquestionable there is a lack of (legal) representation for African Americans and that African Americans are over-represented in the justice system."
Jones, who studied criminal justice in college and worked for a while in law enforcement, says most people find out about the juvenile justice system only through personal experience.
"Nobody knows until somebody gets pushed into it," she says. "And the problem is, once you get in the system, you stay in the system. By keeping kids in the system, they're creating criminals." ©