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Read all the stories from Week 2; mandatory bindovers have risen in Cuyahoga, but some Ohio legislators want to eliminate them

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A few months shy of his 19th birthday, Efrain struggled to wrap his head around how he ended up in an adult prison cell, where he’s now serving three years on attempted murder charges committed as a juvenile.

He traces his devolution to a single day in December 2020, his freshman year in high school. He was rushing to finish homework before Christmas break when his best friend called wanting to play video games. Efrain brushed him off.

The friend would end up tagging along with other teens to an arranged drug deal on Cleveland’s West side. There was a fight over the drugs and the teens peeled away as bullets chased them. One round ripped through the back windshield, striking Efrain’s friend in the head, killing him. The boy was 13.

Efrain blamed himself, thinking his friend might still be alive if he hadn’t prioritized homework over hanging out.

“Ever since then, I just lost myself a little bit,” he recalls now. “That’s when everything started unraveling.”

Efrain is one of more than 50 juvenile offenders – referred to by middle name or pseudonym – who spoke to The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com about their recent experiences within the Cuyahoga County juvenile justice system, which puts more children behind bars than any other county in Ohio. Their stories, told over six weeks, illustrate the influences that led them to crime, how their behavior escalated from petty misdemeanors to violence, and what barriers delayed or blocked their way out. This is week two of six.

Delinquent: Our System, Our Kids

  • Delinquent: Lou, serving 25 years to life, wrestles with the inner demons many young people face in adult prison – sometimes causing new harm
  • Delinquent: Will, caught up in the streets from young age, needed adult prison to reform, he says
  • Delinquent: After bindover, some kids, like Parnell, get adult time that could have been served in the juvenile system – ‘We’re setting them up for failure,’ advocates say
  • Delinquent: A growing number of juveniles have no criminal record prior to mandatory bindover. ‘I was shocked,’ Edward says

SEE ALL STORIES FOR DELINQUENT: OUR SYSTEM, OUR KIDS

In many cases, young people cycle through numerous attempts at intervention before sometimes committing crimes that can send them to adult court, a process known as bindover. Increasingly, however, youth are becoming adults on their first offense, without receiving any opportunities for rehabilitation.

That’s what happened to Efrain.

He was bound over on his first charge, following a non-fatal shooting he played a role in but did not commit. His case raises questions about the law that lets prosecutors’ charging decisions force kids to bypass the juvenile justice system and immediately be treated as adults. All without a judge’s input or so much as a hearing on what’s best for the child or public safety.

Escalations

After Efrain’s friend died, he fell into a deep depression. His dad recalls him “moping” around the house for months, but never thought to send him to therapy. Efrain barely ate and noticeably dropped weight. He’d cry if loved ones mentioned the friend’s name. If bullies or rivals did, he’d fight.

He fought a lot.

He already spent most days home alone after the pandemic moved schools online, so it was easy to sleep through classes. He was soon failing every subject. Eventually, Efrain skipped school altogether, leaving home to spend time with a new group of friends who taught him how to sell drugs and firearms. If his dad questioned him, he’d lie about where he was going, who he was with and how he was earning money.

Efrain felt desperate to escape his pain. More than once, he remembers staring down the barrel of a gun, taunting the handler to pull the trigger.

“I feel like if my friend didn’t get shot, I wouldn’t be into stuff and in the streets,” he says now.

Seven months after burying his best friend, Efrain suffered another blow. His 20-year-old brother, Ezekial, was jailed on attempted murder charges.

Ezekial had been in and out of trouble most of Efrain’s life. He’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in elementary school, and his erratic behavior frequently led to violence at home and in the classroom. Charges followed for domestic violence, possessing weed and having a weapon in school, leading to stretches in juvenile jail. But he always came back home.

After the shooting, however, Ezekial pleaded to felonious assault and, in a separate case, aggravated robbery, a deal that sent him to prison for at least seven years. Efrain’s behavior and mental state deteriorated further, and this time, his father noticed. He speculated that his older son’s incarceration exacerbated Efrain’s feelings of abandonment from when their mother left them young.

It also created new problems. With the brother behind bars, the people he’d harmed came after Efrain instead. He started getting death threats, so his father sent him out of state to live with an aunt. Efrain says the change in environment helped him, for a while, but sometimes he would still act out, and his aunt would threaten to send him back to Cleveland, which made him fear for his life.

After about a year, he returned home, hoping the beef had subsided. It hadn’t.

First, Efrain says someone shot at him while he was walking on the street. Then, somebody fired at his house. Police noted bullet holes spread across the storm door and two vehicles parked out front. No one was home at the time of the shooting, but that was apparently the final straw.

Efrain, now 17 and hardened, sought out one of his brother’s friends and the pair went to confront the two men they believed responsible for the drive-by shootings. (Efrain had previously fought with one of the victims at school, the prosecutor’s office said.) Efrain was unarmed when they approached the men sitting outside of a home, but the friend drew a gun and started firing, striking one of the victims in the chest and the other in the side. Both survived.

Police arrested Efrain on felonious assault charges.

Choices

At that point, Efrain’s case could have gone several ways.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, which makes charging decisions, could have charged him with lesser crimes. He might have qualified for diversion or other court programs designed to rehabilitate first-time offenders.

The prosecutor also could have pursued the initial felonious assault charges. In that case, Efrain could have been adjudicated delinquent and faced a range of youth sanctions, from probation to life in juvenile prison – meaning until he turned 21. Or the prosecutor could have asked a judge to exercise discretion – to weigh the facts of the case and Efrain’s life circumstances and determine whether it would be appropriate to charge him as an adult or keep him within reach of the juvenile justice system’s programs.

The prosecutor might have also sought to indict Efrain as a Serious Youthful Offender, in which case he would have received a blended sentence. Efrain would serve the juvenile portion first, but an adult sentence could follow, if he were to reoffend during that period.

All those options would have allowed Efrain at least a shot at reform in the juvenile system, where sanctions and programs are designed to rehabilitate youth who commit crimes.

Instead, the prosecutor added counts for attempted murder, calling Efrain complicit in the shooting and charging him the same as the 20-year-old who fired the gun. The charges triggered a scenario that forced Efrain into the adult system, without any regard for his lack of criminal history or his potential for rehabilitation.

Juvenile courts were designed with the understanding that kids make mistakes. Their brains are a work-in-progress that are prone to poor choices. And because of that, the juvenile system bends toward second chances, with intervention services meant to change a youth’s thoughts and behaviors and, theoretically, prevent them from reoffending – as juveniles or adults.

However, the law has always contemplated scenarios where kids might commit acts so offensive to the community that they should no longer be considered juveniles. In those cases, teens can be bound over as adults to face adult sanctions, including adult prison.

For nearly a century, all bindover decisions were discretionary. It was up to a judge to consider the totality of a youth’s circumstances – their role in the alleged crime, their homelife, academic performance, prior court involvement and a psychological evaluation. Then, the judge would decide whether to keep them in the juvenile system or send them on to the adult system.

But following a rise of juvenile crime and public demands for stricter punishment, Ohio passed a law in 1996 that paved a more direct pathway to the adult system. It created so-called mandatory bindovers, which bypass a judicial review, requiring youth in certain cases to be transferred to the adult docket, as long as there’s probable cause they committed the offense.

Now, 16- and 17-year-olds, who are charged with murder or attempted murder, are automatically bound over to adult court. Other serious felonies, like aggravated robbery or rape, trigger the process too, if the teen used a gun or previously served time in a juvenile prison for high-level felonies.

The law also applies to kids as young as 14, but only if they’re charged with murder and were previously found delinquent – the juvenile system’s term for guilty – of a high-level felony, for which they served time in youth prison.

A child would also be subject to bindover if they come from a state whose laws require it, or if they’re convicted of a felony and have been bound over before. “Once an adult, always an adult,” according to the law.

If an offender’s age or the elements of the crime don’t qualify for a mandatory transfer, prosecutors can still request discretionary bindover. But that scenario is less common.

Between 2019 and 2022, Cuyahoga sent 259 youths to the adult system, a Plain Dealer/cleveland.com analysis found. Close to 60% of them had a mandatory transfer in at least one of their cases. (Some of the youths were also bound over on discretionary charges in separate cases or may have fallen under the “once an adult, always an adult” provision.)

Efrain was among the mandatory transfers.

He was 17 and accused of attempted murder, so his case was automatically sent to adult court. No second chances.

‘You’re salvageable’

In adult court, Efrain ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of attempted murder, a deal that cut his potential prison time in half. But he could still face up to seven years.

At sentencing, Efrain’s attorney, Brant DiChiera with the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office, asked the judge for leniency. Because of the automatic bindover, Efrain had never received intervention services or opportunities for reform. So, while it was now too late to spare him from adult prison, DiChiera argued, the judge could still reduce the impact.

“He’s at a crossroads,” DiChiera told the judge. “He can be rehabilitated. There is hope in the future for this young man.”

Efrain had already shown flashes of that potential while in juvenile lockup, where youth are held until they’re convicted as adults, or their cases are otherwise closed.

Early on, he was prone to fighting, especially while coincidentally housed next to the people he says were involved in his best friend’s unsolved shooting death two years earlier. They taunted him again. He fought back.

“I lost it and just started punching every single one of them,” he recalls. “We were fighting back-to-back for months until people started getting moved.”

Around that same time, Efrain’s house was shot up again. This time, police said the bullets went through the front door and windows.

But after they were separated, Efrain straightened out. He completed the credits needed to graduate high school. He became active in religious groups and started working on the cleaning crew. Soon, he was moved to low-security housing reserved for the best-behaved offenders.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Deborah M. Turner.

Common Pleas Judge Deborah Turner was sympathetic. She handed down the minimum sentence – three years prison – noting Efrain’s lack of criminal history and past traumas. (Turner later sentenced Efrain’s codefendant, who fired the gun, to eight and a half years.)

“It’s a sad day, because although you’re 18, you’re still a child,” Turner told him. “You’re salvageable. You’re salvageable because you’re young.”

If Efrain serves the full sentence, he’ll be released a month before his 21st birthday. If he demonstrates good behavior, he could be released later this year, at 19, per statute.

The sentence was the best-case scenario for Efrain, under the circumstances, but his attorney, DiChiera, still considers it a waste. The juvenile system can hold offenders until they’re 21, meaning Efrain could have served the same amount of time in youth lockup, he says.

Instead of being mixed with adult offenders and placed in adult programs, Efrain could have received services designed for juveniles, like youth counseling. He could have gotten a high school diploma, instead of now seeking a GED. And he could have exited the system with some protections, instead of now being “saddled with (an adult) record he can never have sealed or expunged.”

If public safety required Efrain’s incarceration, DiChiera says, “he would have been off the street either way.”

Collateral sanctions

Efrain’s father still bristles over the injustice of it. While he believes the juvenile system gave his oldest son a fair chance at rehabilitation prior to his adult incarceration, he feels it robbed his youngest of the same opportunity.

Before the shooting, he’d seen Efrain taking steps to give his life more structure and better himself. Efrain had applied for the Marines and received a conditional offer to begin boot camp after high school — “I always felt that saving people was for me,” Efrain says of that decision.

His felony record now makes joining the military nearly impossible. It also creates roadblocks to other employment opportunities, as well as housing.

“I feel they messed up his life,” Efrain’s father says.

Efrain didn’t see it that way, initially. His first week in adult prison, he was hopeful he could turn his life around. He vowed to make the most of his time in prison and be ready to re-enter society as an adult.

He talked of seeking counseling for the first time and celebrated an opportunity to get his GED – he never would have finished high school if not for his incarceration, he said. He still wanted to apply for the military after his release, but he was also making plans to try barber school, if he’s not accepted.

“When I get back home, I will have everything ready, like I didn’t miss any time,” he says at the time.

With each passing month, however, his mood and outlook began to change. Efrain was calling home less, and when he did, he seemed despondent. His father says he would complain about the poor living conditions and how much longer he had to stay.

During that period, Efrain stopped communicating with reporters entirely, going silent for months. Then, in February, shortly before his 19th birthday, he sent an email through the jail’s messaging system.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been calling, I’ve just been down lately,” he wrote. “I’ve been thinking about going home and I’ve just been losing hope, you know…it just gets tiring.”

Edward: When should we treat youth as adults?

The juvenile system extends until an offender’s 21st birthday, offering age-tailored treatments youths don’t receive in adult prison. However, some juveniles sentenced to adult lockup are released before they turn 21, raising questions about why they were bound over in the first place. For Parnell, released from adult prison at age 19 for crimes he committed four years earlier, the collateral consequences will stick around for a long time.

In 2021, Edward stood inside a courtroom of the Cuyahoga Juvenile Justice Center, waiting for the judge’s ruling. He’d never been in trouble with the law – never seen the inside of a courthouse before – but now faced serious charges.

A few months earlier, the 16-year-old requested a Lyft ride. When the driver arrived, Edward drew a gun and demanded his keys and wallet. The driver fled on foot and the teen sped off in his car but crashed during a police pursuit.

Now, facing consequences in court, he recognized his actions were stupid, a horrific plot to sell a hot car to make a quick buck after quitting his job. Still, considering the absence of a record and physical harm, he thought he’d get probation, maybe house arrest.

But the prosecutor’s office charged him with aggravated robbery with a gun, triggering mandatory bindover to adult court. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are automatically bound over on such charges if they used a firearm or previously served time in a juvenile prison for another high-level felony.

“I was shocked,” Edward, from Cleveland’s Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood, recalls now from an adult prison, where he’s serving a six- to eight-year sentencing. “I made a mistake when I was 16, and now it’s going to haunt me for the remainder of my life.”

While most youth touch the system multiple times before being bound over to the adult docket, a growing number are first-time offenders. Edward was transferred following his carjacking. Another teen, Sean, is also serving years in adult prison on his first offense, at age 16.

They are kids who received no interventions at all – no treatment to address the underlying causes of juvenile crime – before the system committed them to adult prisons, to serve adult time, surrounded by adult offenders. All without so much as a hearing to determine what’s best for public safety and what would give the youth the best shot at becoming a productive member of society.

A decade ago, it was rare to see juveniles commit acts triggering that mandatory transfer, especially on their first or second charge, juvenile judges say. That’s changed.

Of 259 youths transferred to the adult system between 2019 and 2022 – either through mandatory or discretionary bindover – 40, or 15%, had either no record or one prior case, according to a Plain Dealer/cleveland.com analysis. Bindover was mandatory for all but 13 of them.

‘Due process’

The pattern has long irked reform advocates, who say mandatory bindovers undermine justice and the reason why the juvenile system was created: to attempt rehabilitation first. They support a 2022 bill moving through the state legislature that seeks to eliminate mandatory bindovers and return all transfer decisions to judges. That would give each child “the full investigation that due process demands,” argues Leah Winsberg, a Cleveland-based policy attorney for Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit serving Ohio and Kentucky youth.

“Instead of an automatic or blanket transfer based on criteria we know doesn’t necessarily align with science, courts would give individualized attention on the child’s circumstances and needs,” she says.

Other states are already taking some of those steps. Over the past two decades, legislators across the country have reacted to declines in juvenile crime and advances in brain science by adapting laws to narrow a youth’s path to adult court, often by raising age requirements or limiting the number of bindover-eligible offenses.

At least two states, Rhode Island and California, have abolished mandatory bindover within the past decade, joining a handful of other states that give judges exclusive transfer discretion. Pennsylvania last year introduced a bill that would do the same. Conversely, at least one state, Kentucky, has gone the other direction, reinstating mandatory bindover earlier this year, after repealing the practice in 2021.

Cuyahoga Prosecutor Michael C. O’Malley

Cuyahoga Prosecutor Michael O’Malley defends mandatory bindover, even for first-time offenders. He believes youths accused of serious offenses should be tried as adults.

“We have to file the charge consistent with the facts that we see,” O’Malley says. “We can’t have a murder or attempted murder and call it a disorderly conduct, so they’re not bound over.”

More than half of the juveniles who were bound over on their first or second charge between 2019 and 2022, were accused of non-homicide crimes, like aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary or rape, county bindover data shows, though nearly all of them involved a firearm.

Edward was one of them. So was Sean.

Two days after Sean’s 16th birthday, in 2020, he threw a 72-year-old motorist to the ground at gunpoint and sped off in his car before it crashed during a police pursuit. He had no prior criminal record.

The prosecutor’s office charged him with aggravated robbery. At that point, staff likely reviewed details of the crime and Sean’s criminal history and consulted with the victim and Sean’s lawyer. From there, they had similar options as in Efrain’s case.

They could have reduced the original charge to a lesser felony, keeping Sean in the juvenile justice system, with the likelihood for youth prison, potentially until his 21st birthday. They could have also reduced the charge and then filed for discretionary bindover, prompting a judge’s thorough review before deciding transfer.

They might also have sought a Serious Youthful Offender sentence, in which case Sean would only go on to adult prison if he got into trouble again, while still a youth.

Instead, the office pressed forward with the original charge, triggering a mandatory bindover, because Sean was 16 and the crime involved a gun.

“It blew my mind,” Sean recalls of the decision.

Up until then, Sean feels he had “a regular childhood, kind of sheltered,” growing up with six sisters in Broadway-Slavic Village. He assisted at his father’s cleaning business, took karate lessons and loved to cook. But at one point, his family suspected he was hanging around a negative crowd and sent him to live with an out-of-state relative for a while.

Sometime after returning to Cuyahoga County, however, he was criminally charged for the first time and was bound over. He felt the system was making an example out of him.

If authorities wanted him locked up, juvenile jail could have straightened him out, he argues, attributing his crime to peer pressure. (Following the carjacking, police reported a second suspect fled with Sean but escaped capture.) He’s now midway through a six- to eight-year adult prison sentence.

“If someone wants to change, it doesn’t take them years,” Sean contends.

Edward, too, feels he didn’t need adult prison to reform after his first charge. Unlike many other youths who are bound over, he had a supportive family and no history of violence, things that court officials note increase the likelihood for rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

As in Sean’s case, prosecutors could have reduced Edward’s aggravated robbery charge to a lesser offense and brokered a plea deal to keep him in the juvenile system. Instead, they maintained the original charge, triggering the teen’s transfer to adult court, where he was sentenced to six to eight years in prison.

The outcome affected more than just Edward, his mom says.

Her 15-year-old son started burying himself in schoolwork and refused to leave home unless she forced him, extreme measures to avoid any potential for legal trouble. “He wouldn’t even walk to the store,” she says.

Meanwhile her youngest, 14, started spiraling, seeking out surrogate brothers from rough crowds, she suspects. He’s since improved.

At his sentencing, Edward’s adult judge referred to his close-knit family and said he should have known better. Edward, now 19, doesn’t disagree.

“But it’s some things that you have to find out for yourself,” he says.

Parnell: Some youth sent to adult prison are released by age 21, negating the purpose of bindover

While most youth touch the system multiple times before being bound over as adults, an increasing number of juveniles are first-time offenders, like 16-year-olds Edward and Sean. Each is serving six to eight years in adult prison for a carjacking. Each came from a close-knit family. Neither got a chance at court-supported services designed to help them veer away from crime.

This past February, Parnell was applying for jobs but having no luck.

He’d been released from adult prison a month earlier, following his conviction for a 2019 crime spree, when he was 15.

First, Parnell and three others stole a gas station employee’s car at gunpoint on Cleveland’s west side. Days later, he was accused of being involved in a drive-by shooting, where a 19-year-old was struck in the leg.

Parnell was charged with numerous felony offenses, none of which required mandatory bindover because he was too young. However, the prosecutor’s office requested a discretionary transfer, which a judge granted following an investigation into Parnell’s history and chances for rehabilitation. (We explore discretionary bindover in more detail next week.)

Parnell ultimately pleaded guilty to six felony offenses, including felonious assault and attempted aggravated robbery.

He served four years and was released, and today the 19-year-old is living with an aunt in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood until he can support himself. That requires a job. But he’s forced to check the little box designating himself as a felon, likely hindering his prospects.

“A lot of jobs I was going for haven’t been getting back with me,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because of the background check or what.”

An adult criminal record is one of the consequences that sticks with convicted juveniles following their bindover, posing a challenge when applying for work and housing. Already facing those obstacles at 19, Parnell questions the type of future he can realistically achieve.

The system says he’s served his time, yet he feels he’s still being punished.

“Things we did as juveniles back at 15 years old, these things are sticking on my record for the rest of my life,” he says.

The juvenile justice system is designed for rehabilitation. Punishment takes a backseat to programs, and judges tend to look upon their dockets with compassion for the complex social issues that give rise to juvenile delinquency. So, most of the time, when youth are bound over to the adult system, it’s in the name of public safety. The juvenile system only extends to an offender’s 21st birthday, and sometimes protecting the public from a violent offender requires a much longer incarceration than that.

But some youth who are bound over and are sentenced to adult prison, like 15-year-old Parnell, are released before they turn 21. It’s a scenario that raises questions about why those kids were bound over in the first place and whether their time could have been better served in juvenile lockup, where they might receive treatment designed for youth offenders – and could one day leave without an adult record hindering their chances at finding housing, a job and a better life.

‘Setting them up for failure’

Of 259 youths bound over between 2019 and 2022, 14% have either been released or are scheduled for release before their 21st birthday, according to a Plain Dealer/cleveland.com analysis.

When including youth offenders who are released sometime after turning 21 but before turning 22, the rate jumps to 29%. (An additional 10% represents juveniles whose adult court cases are still active or were dismissed.)

It’s a frustrating scenario for justice reform advocates, who say those kids could have served the same amount of time in juvenile custody, perhaps to their greater benefit – and society’s.

Juvenile lockup facilities are designed to provide age-appropriate services, argues Brooke Burnes, managing counsel for the Ohio Public Defender’s Youth Defense Department. In Ohio’s youth prisons, kids receive special programming to address criminal thinking or behavioral problems and attend year-round school. By contrast, she says, adult prisons offer one-size-fits-all programming for their broad population and can only offer, rather than mandate, educational opportunities.

Those factors may account for why youth sent to adult prison experience worse outcomes. Nationally, they’re consistently at higher risk of physical and sexual abuse and suicide, studies show, and 33% more likely to experience an early death, even after release, according to research concluded last year. (In Ohio, juveniles entering adult prison between the ages of 14 and 17 are housed separately from the general population. But once the individual turns 18, they lose that protection.)

Youth sentenced as adults are also more likely to recidivate. As early as 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized that youth who serve time in adult prison are 39% more likely to commit new felonies than peers who were deemed delinquent in similar crimes but kept in the juvenile system.

When youth are bound over to the adult system but serve short sentences, Burnes argues, “We’re essentially setting them up for failure.”

Of 29 Cuyahoga juvenile offenders who were bound over between 2019 and 2022 and have since been released from prison, one third are either back in adult lockup, facing new charges or have a warrant out for their arrest, a Plain Dealer/cleveland.com analysis found.

‘Time is time’

For Prosecutor O’Malley and some of the juvenile court’s six judges, there are valid reasons to bind youths over to face adult prison, even if they don’t spend much time there.

Sometimes a youth’s alleged crime demands it, they argue. Other times it may be necessary to remove more physically mature youths from the juvenile population, where they could fight with other kids or impede their rehabilitation.

Prosecutors also argue against deciding on charges or bindover based on how much time an offender might spend in adult prison, because there’s no way to predict how cases will play out. Plea negotiations or a judge’s discretion can affect sentencing, prompting an offender to be released earlier than expected.

When that happens, “I hope that kid comes out and leads a good, productive life,” O’Malley says.

Juvenile Judge Kristin Sweeney, in contrast, says she does factor potential adult time into her bindover decisions. If a youth seems likely to be released from adult sanctions by their 21st birthday, she prefers to keep them in the juvenile system.

“Time is time,” Sweeney says. “If a kid is going to get out by their 21st birthday, why would I bind them over?”

Parnell isn’t completely dissatisfied with how his case played out.

While he believes his bindover was unfair, he prefers it to the alternative of being confined another two years, had he been sentenced to “juvie life,” until he’s 21.

To him, at least at first, it was worth serving a shorter overall sentence, even in an adult prison. But the potential never-ending consequences that now come with having a permanent adult record could dog him for years.

By April, he got a job as a cook in a chicken wing restaurant. He’s happy for the work, and though he acknowledges lingering concerns, he’s determined to beat future odds. “I know there will other opportunities out there to be successful,” he says.

Will: Sometimes bindover may be necessary

Will was convicted for violent gun crimes committed at 17, following many chances at reform, including a long stint in youth prison. He was finally sent to adult lockup, which he says was necessary for him to straighten out. Thankful the system helped save his life, he still has advice for justice leaders on how to avoid escalations in the first place.

Will has a saying: “We ain’t choose the streets. The streets chose us.”

When he was 11, his mother’s fiancé was murdered, and Will began selling taffy on corners in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood to help support her. Soon, he was sucked into the street lifestyle, smoking pot and firing guns for fun.

At 13, he shoplifted drugstore candy, sucker-punching a bystander in the process, earning his first trip to probation. The court tried to divert him then. A judge ordered him to a behavioral health center, where he was diagnosed with mental health disorders, marked by defiance and aggression. Officials kicked him out for skipping classes and graffitiing walls with gang signs.

Back on the street, he started robbing people for money.

“I was like damn, I get $10,000 here, I can give my mom $7,000,” Will, now 22, recalls. “She needs s— for bills, I take $3,000 for clothes and games.”

For most youth who are charged, they enter a juvenile delinquency system that’s built on the promise of rehabilitation. Every sanction and program the court offers is designed to disrupt bad behavior, address the kid’s unmet social, emotional or psychological needs and help them find their way out. If the system is working, bindovers should be rare. Yet, they’re happening more often in Cuyahoga than anywhere else in the state.

Prosecutor O’Malley’s office makes the charging decisions that can trigger bindovers, which he defends as necessary to protect public safety. Often, kids are accused of committing crimes that are so violent, so abhorrent to the community that they warrant treating them as adults and sentencing them to prison.

For some youths, like Will, binding them over might be the right approach. Perhaps it’s the only way to protect the public from a kid so aggressive, he had racked up nearly two dozen sets of charges by the time of his bindover, despite multiple opportunities at intervention. Or maybe it’s the only way to keep him from further contributing to the county’s juvenile crime rate or to keep a gun out of his hand, in a community that has become replete with guns.

Will, himself, wouldn’t disagree.

Cycling

When Will was 13, while still on probation, he cut his ankle monitor and walked to a gas station to buy snacks. He spotted an unoccupied vehicle with the engine running, jumped in and sped off.

Authorities tracked the car, eventually arresting Will and taking him to the detention center. Prior to arraignment, he broke the fire extinguisher in his cell, causing the space to flood.

A judge found Will delinquent – the juvenile court’s term for guilty – of robbery and sentenced him to a six-month residential program meant to correct his behaviors and address his mental health conditions. Will acted like he was 12 but looked older than his 14 years, with facial hair and significant body mass, his probation officer noted in court records.

“He is attractive to the gangs and other youth who are into negative things, as a result of his size,” the officer wrote.

Soon after leaving there, Will was arrested for armed robbery, accused of pointing a gun at a 10-year-old neighborhood kid, who was holding his sister’s car keys. Will took the keys and drove off in the sister’s car. This time a judge sentenced him to 18 months in youth prison, where a probation officer said he “constantly goes to war” with fellow teens over gang beefs.

Two months after his release, in 2019, Will shot an 18-year-old at a gas station on Cleveland’s East side. The victim was struck in the liver but survived. A witness told police he heard people arguing, followed by three gunshots. Will, who was 17, insists the shooting was self-defense.

He says he was put on home detention but quickly cut his ankle monitor. Soon after, he approached a 72-year-old woman sitting in a car at a gas pump. Her husband was inside paying. Will first asked her for change, then told her that if she didn’t get out of the car, he’d shoot her. He never brandished a gun, but he jumped in, prompting the woman to start hitting him. She ultimately got out, and Will sped away.

The prosecutor’s office charged Will with attempted murder, among other offenses, triggering his mandatory bindover, without the benefit of a judge’s review first.

He was later prosecuted as an adult and is now midway through a seven- to nine-year prison term.

Guns

The proliferation of firearms across America has hit cities like Cleveland hard. Using a firearm in a crime triggers bindover, which may help explain why Cuyahoga sends so many youths to the adult system.

Shootings in Cleveland surged last year, contributing to what O’Malley called “unprecedented” mayhem. When a throng of gun-toting juveniles were caught on camera beating an innocent man at a gas station last summer, O’Malley decried “the rise in juvenile violence” and called for more accountability.

Notably, violent crime in Cleveland is down this year. But whether juvenile crime is trending up or down is nuanced.

Juvenile court data shows delinquency filings fell 12% between 2019 and 2022. (O’Malley’s office attributes some of the decline to increased use of diversion programs.) Felony delinquencies, in particular, were lower in 2022 than any other year in the past decade, except for the pandemic year of 2020, according to state data.

Some youth crimes declined significantly in Cuyahoga over that period, court data shows. Aggravated robbery charges, for example, fell 32% and aggravated burglaries fell 51%.

Other juvenile crimes, however, significantly increased in Cuyahoga County. Assault charges in 2022, were up 35% over 2021, and rape charges were up 38% over the four-year period, court data shows.

In 2021, there were 23 juveniles charged with homicide crimes. That tally increased to 34 in 2022, and 41 in 2023. In addition, youth arrests in Cleveland were up 21% in 2023, compared to 2022.

O’Malley largely blames guns.

No other Ohio county has “the level of guns in the possession of juveniles like we have in Cuyahoga County,” according to O’Malley, who is seeking a third term in November’s general election. “It’s tragic, reality.” He points to that as justification for binding over more youth than his statewide counterparts.

It’s his job to protect public safety, he argues, and some juveniles have proven themselves a danger with their heinous actions.

“If we make decisions that are wrong,” he says, “people lose their lives.”

Rehabilitation

O’Malley’s tough-on-youth philosophy resonates with many – including, indirectly, Will himself.

He had 20 sets of juvenile charges by the time of his mandatory bindover and had been offered several chances at rehabilitation, including youth lockup, which he calls “kiddie camp.” Will now agrees that he needed adult prison to reform, considers it a blessing, even.

Whether anything less could have diverted him from teenage crime before that point, he’s not sure. Perhaps a legitimate means of income might have helped, he speculates, but no one seemed willing to hire him or his friends. “They see us on the street and think we’re aggressive,” he says.

But Will is aggressive.

He wonders how his mother might have influenced that trait. “Mom used to whoop me,” he says, “Switches, cords, belts – that traumatizes kids.”

During his teen years, police responded to several disturbances at the home. In one confrontation, they found her gripping a bat.

“My mom didn’t know that her aggression made me a worse person,” he says. Then he changes his mind: “If I was treated softly, it would have maybe spoiled me.”

After four years in adult prison, Will still doesn’t feel rehabilitated, at least not in the literal sense, as he still struggles to control his temper. For him, prison is an extension of the streets, only without females or bullets. There are, however, plenty of knives. Will says he’s been stabbed in the chest, lip and eye socket. Prison records show he was involved in at least nine fights between 2020 and 2022; on one occasion guards confiscated a shank from his cell.

Still, Will believes he can return to society a law-abiding citizen, thanks to his survival skills, business ideas and family support. But he doesn’t want to see other teenagers following in his footsteps, where adult prison becomes the only recourse.

To prevent that, he urges juvenile justice leaders to listen to youths and consider more seriously their troubled backgrounds. He wants officials to really understand what’s driving crime in Cleveland, including protective measures kids like him sometimes feel forced to take.

“They see us shooting,” he says, “but we do what we have to do in order to survive.”

The streets chose us.

Lou: Collateral sanctions and long-term consequences

Serving 25 years-to-life for gunning down a man who he believed beat his mother, Lou tries to reconcile who he was at 16 with who he is now, at 20 – and who he might be in his 40s, when he’s eligible for release. Until then, he faces tough obstacles as a young person in adult prison, at greater risk of physical violence and mental health damage.

Inside a supermax prison in Youngstown, Lou sat down to scrawl rap lyrics for a song he titled “True Story.”

I’m fightin’ demons at night and I hear cries when I sleep/Demons at night and that’s the devil after me

Lou’s demons largely stemmed from an incident in 2020, where his mother was severely beaten. He raced home to find her face black-and-blue, one eye swollen shut.

Two Cleveland police officers had responded to the scene and interviewed the woman but declined to file a report. (The city later charged those officers with dereliction of duty and other misdemeanors, but a judge tossed the case.)

Lou, then 16, was enraged. Not again. As a boy, he’d helplessly watched his father beat her, which gave him “a sense of wanting to protect me,” his mother explains. “I was pretty much all he had.”

Lou and his mom sped to the scene where the beating had taken place, along with Lou’s 19-year-old sister. When they arrived, Lou drew a gun, chased down a man suspected to be involved and shot him in the head, fatally.

He was charged with aggravated murder, requiring his transfer to adult court.

There, Lou was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Now 20, he often dwells on the sequence of events that led him there.

…Took a life and that s— still haunts me/Those demons at night they try to kill me in my dreams

Juvenile justice is a balancing act between public safety and rehabilitation. In most cases, kids are expected to receive second chances and opportunities to reform. But if they do something bad enough or kill someone, they can be punished the same as adults, without consideration of their life circumstances or potential for change.

Prosecutors can adjust charges or offer plea deals to negate bindover for some kids who they feel might still be rehabilitated by juvenile services. But if a crime involves murder, those chances are low – someone must be held accountable, and the public must be adequately protected, they say.

Still, every kid, like Lou, who is sent to adult prison in the name of public safety suffers some collateral damage that society often overlooks. Housed among older prisoners once they turn 18, they are at greater risk of victimization and stunted development that could hinder their chances at leading law-abiding lives when they are finally released. And the adult prison environment – both the regular exposure to violence and the lack of treatment resources – only deepens the trauma that gave rise to their criminal behavior in the first place.

Whether viewed compassionately or through the lens of law and order, the inner turmoil and the harm done to an adolescent behind bars requires consideration in any story about the juvenile justice system.

Lou considers it every day, as he tries to reconcile who he was at 16 with who he is now, at 20 – and who he might be in his 40s, when he’s eligible for release.

Life

The ripple effects of the murder Lou committed went beyond his conviction. His mom was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting and sentenced to 18 years. His sister – who was struck in the back by crossfire – was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter but got three years.

Lou blames himself. “Everybody is in jail because of me,” he says. “I couldn’t control my temper. That’s what haunts me.”

Ask God for forgiveness, bow down, hit my knees…all this hurt deep inside, think I need therapy

Lou’s mother has told him he is not responsible for her imprisonment, that emotions just got out of hand. “We shouldn’t have ever gone back,” she acknowledges from prison. “We weren’t thinking. We were hurt.”

Prior to the shooting, Lou had a significant juvenile record largely of misdemeanors but also felony theft and attempted burglary – prompting interventions by the court. But his home life made rehabilitation challenging. While Lou was living with his father, the dad skipped town without telling anyone where he was going. Lou resettled in Maple Heights with his mom.

At 14, he began claiming gang membership and skipping court-ordered programming. He was also caught in bed with his former elementary school tutor, who was 24, his mom reported. The court sent him to a therapeutic residential program, which helped, his probation officer reported.

It didn’t take long, however, for Lou to fall back into old ways upon returning home. He reunited with a rough crowd, and during one violent incident his house was shot up with at least 11 bullets. Lou told police he’d “had some words” a few days earlier with a local teen who brandished a gun.

Later, Lou was caught with his mother’s gun, and he was charged with grand theft and illegal firearm possession. He was put on home detention as his case pended but cut his ankle monitor and ran away. Less than a month later, he shot the man dead.

Lou’s mom believes the domestic violence he’d witnessed as a kid played an indirect role in his crimes – and eventual adult imprisonment. Children exposed to such abuse don’t get the help they need, she says. “Mothers and fathers don’t get the help we need, and it’s a generational curse that goes on and on.”

Harm

When Lou arrived at adult prison, his past started fueling nightmares, in which he envisioned himself pinned down by an imposing figure, who left handprints on his face and scratches on his body.

Baby hold me tight, these nightmares still got me

Waking up offers little relief. The age gap between him and other inmates has made prison a struggle. Lou says officials have been keeping him locked in his cell all day, following a recent fight with an older inmate over a financial debt. (Reporters requested Lou’s disciplinary history in prison, but the state did not provide it.)

“They can take advantage of you ‘cause you’re young,” Lou says of older inmates. “I came in fresh 18, and I’m around 40-year-olds that have life, and that rape people.”

Juveniles entering adult prison between the ages of 14 and 17 are housed separately from the general population. But once the individual turns 18, they lose that protection. That’s where the violent environment can take a toll.

Research shows that 18- to 21-year-olds – an age range commonly termed late adolescence – react to emotionally charged situations more similarly to younger adolescents than young adults. As a result, when mixed with older prisoners, they are at greater risk to experience violence and solitary confinement, which can stunt development. Fighting can also delay their eventual release.

The risk of increased violence was clear throughout this project. Reporters requested in-person interviews with seven incarcerated young people. The state denied all but one, citing disciplinary status. (Lou was not among the requests.)

Late adolescents housed in adult prison also experience poorer outcomes as adults: higher recidivism rates, worse mental health conditions and dashed hopes for the future.

Having served just under two years of his potential life sentence, Lou can already see why. He likens adult imprisonment to being “treated like you’re not human.” Sometimes, he looks into the eyes of older prisoners and can tell they’ve lost hope.

He doesn’t want that to happen to him. He’s focusing on returning home to his son – his biggest motivator – and a better life. He’ll be 41, at the earliest, when he’s released. His son will be 24.

Fightin’ demons at night, and I hear voices in my dreams/Tunnel vision in my eyes and I can’t wait to be free

(Coming Next Sunday: Unlike mandatory bindovers, discretionary transfers require a juvenile judges’ approval, based on an assessment of whether youth can be rehabilitated in the juvenile system. “There are a lot more services that can be offered at this time,” a judge has said in declining to send a youth to the adult system following an alleged carjacking. Because of that review, many consider discretionary bindovers a fairer form of justice. Yet, since 2019, discretionary transfers have plummeted in Cuyahoga County. Why?)

Data Editor Rich Exner and data reporter Zachary Smith contributed to this report.

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