Response to Comments by SB 256 Sponsors and Supporters Continued

U.S. Senate hopeful Matt Dolan stops in Medina County

Responses by NOVJM are in bold.

U.S. Senate hopeful Matt Dolan stops in Medina County

Responses by NOVJM are in bold.

“I supported it because it’s not a provision where there’s automatic release after 25 years,” [Senator Dolan] said. “What it does do is let someone who’s sentenced as a juvenile have a hearing after 25 years to determine if they should be eligible for parole or serve the remainder of their life in jail. Obviously, there are crimes so heinous they’ll never be eligible for parole.”

There doesn’t have to be an automatic release for 256 to be dangerous. Giving some dangerous criminals even the smallest chance to be released is too unacceptable. And remember, while the current OH parole board doesn’t release a lot of violent criminals, future boards might be more inclined to do so. Or we could have laws mandating parole. And even if an offender is never released, parole hearings will still inflict devastating harm upon victims. So the “it’s not automatic release” and “they won’t get out” defenses don’t work. The truth is that release is a possible outcome of a parole hearing, and it is a dangerous possibility that harms victims. If you support mandating parole hearings, you must be willing to acknowledge the potential outcome of those hearings. And finally, why should we have parole hearings and drag victims through so much trauma if the “crimes so heinous they’ll never be eligible for parole”?

“In some instances, perhaps the circumstances of a child’s youth caused them to commit a crime and they’ve mended their ways,” Dolan added.

First, 14 to 17-year-old murderers are not children. Second, juvenile life without parole is rare and is reserved for the worst of the worst. In order for a juvenile to get such sentences, they have to commit serious crimes. Juveniles don’t get life or long sentences for acts that are caused by their youth and circumstances. Malice would have to be involved. 

Perhaps, in some cases, youth and life circumstances played a role, but if one ends up with a life or long sentence then their crime was heinous and cannot be entirely explained by their age and background. 

Opinion: Federal law to abolish life sentences for children urgent priority

In August 2021, the Columbus Dispatch published an op-ed by former senator Peggy Lehner, advocating for the abolition of juvenile life sentences on the federal level. The Dispatch later published a letter in response by our Ohio coordinator, which is 200 words. Here is a longer response.

Responses to former senator Lehner’s op-ed are in bold.

Ohio showed bold leadership in January when Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law prohibiting children from being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and creating parole eligibility for people sent to prison as children.

We start off with extremely offensive language. Mrs. Lehner refers to the beneficiaries of 256 as “children.” Most juveniles in Ohio and around the country who get long and life sentences were 16 or 17 when they committed their crimes. In Ohio you have to be at least 14 to be tried as an adult. 

These beneficiaries of 256 were not children. The term child is used today to refer to pre-adolescent kids. And 14-17 year olds are not pre-adolescent. Also, the term child is associated with innocence and vulnerability. And murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals are not innocent and vulnerable. So not only is the term child inaccurate in terms of age but it is inaccurate in terms of innocence and criminal responsibility. And portraying these felons as innocent vulnerable children is demeaning. 

As one of the lead sponsors of the legislation that ended life without parole for children in Ohio, I firmly believe that we must not throw children away without hope of a second chance. 

These felons are not being thrown away when they get long and life sentences. They are getting punishments that are proportionate to their crimes that both give justice to victims and keep society safe. And those felons are responsible for their sentences. If you want to talk about being thrown away, how about the victims. Maddy Middleton in California, was literally thrown into a recycling bin by her 15-year-old neighbor after being raped by him. These criminals are not being thrown away, they are throwing other people’s lives by taking those lives or significantly altering their lives. 

And there’s the buzzword second chance. Many of these criminals have had second, third, more chances. They had extensive criminal histories prior to the crimes that resulted in long and life sentences. Gavon Ramsay is a great example. Prior to murdering 98-year-old Margaret Douglas and sexually assaulting her body, he had committed numerous violent crimes and had not benefited from efforts to reform him. So with 256, the criminals are getting numerous chances. Let’s remember that the murder victims get 0 chances. 

Redemption and rehabilitation are possible for all children, and we must have policies that reflect this unassailable truth at the state and federal level.

If redemption and rehabilitation are possible for all juveniles, then how come TJ Lane gets left out. He’s also a juvenile offender. So is redemption and rehabilitation possible for all juvenile criminals except TJ Lane? Mrs. Lehner, if you really believe that all juveniles can change then sponsor legislation that allows all juvenile criminals to be paroled. 

And let me also point out that what Mrs. Lehner is saying is factually inaccurate. It is a scientific fact that psychopaths cannot be reformed. They will always remain dangerous. So, her comment that all juveniles are capable of reform is not true. 

As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, children’s brains are not fully developed and, as a result, they are more immature and impulsive than adults. As any parent knows, children are more susceptible to peer pressure, more likely to engage in risky behavior and less likely to think through the long-term consequences of their actions.

At the same time, children have tremendous potential for positive growth and change.

First, the Supreme Court has recognized that some juvenile criminals are culpable enough for life without parole. That’s why SCOTUS has repeatedly refused invitations to ban juvenile life without parole. They have restricted juvenile life without parole. 

Yes, generally teens are more immature, impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure, and less likely to consider consequences. But that doesn’t prevent them from recognizing the harms caused by severe violent crime. And not all juveniles are immature and impulsive and have all the traits she just listed. Again, I’ll bring up Gavon Ramsay, who planned his murder for months and who committed that murder in a criminally sophisticated manner. Ramsay completely understood the consequences of his actions. This was a thrill killing. The consequences of his actions and the thrill those consequences gave him are why he committed the murder. And, he committed the murder completely alone. No peer pressure was involved. Yet, he gets multiple parole hearings because of common traits that other juveniles have? Absurd. 

Your brain doesn’t have to be completely formed to understand the wrongfulness of murdering a 98-year-old woman and sexually assaulting her body.

You can’t sentence criminals based on the typical traits of others in their age group. You have to sentence them based on their individual actions. 

Mrs. Lehner throws in the as any parent knows phrase. These juvenile murderers and rapists are not your typical teenagers. These crimes are not the common youthful indiscretions that we see from most teens. Do most parents of teens know what it’s like to have a teen who does dumb reckless things and causes harm unintentionally? Sure. But most parents don’t know what it’s like to have a teen son or daughter who rapes people or who murders people. These violent criminals are nothing like the teens you and I know. Please stop minimizing these crimes and portraying these very violent offenders as typical youth making typical youthful mistakes that can be explained by immature brains. 

And teens have potential for positive change. Again, it is a scientific fact that psychopaths cannot change. 

Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced the First Step Implementation Act, which would end juvenile life without parole in the federal system by giving people sentenced as children the opportunity to petition a judge for sentencing review after 20 years.

And NOVJM’s problem with this bill is that it allows 3 chances for the criminals to get their sentences reviewed. We are just asking that the legislators limit the amount of retraumatization by reducing the number of times a felon can get out. And there should be an exception for the worst criminals like Johnny Orsinger, who murdered 4 people, including a 9-year-old girl when he was 16. His partner in crime was executed for his part in 2 of these murders. 

Westerman’s home state abolished life without parole for kids in 2017, and they have had great success giving parole opportunities to people who received extreme adult sentences while they were too young to vote, sign a contract or serve on a jury.

You can be old enough to know the wrongfulness of murder but not be old enough to understand how to vote intelligently or responsibly serve on a jury. Voting for something that will significantly change the lives of fellow citizens, deliberating someone’s guilt or innocence, or signing a contract that could affect the rest of your life–all of these activities can involve a significant amount of moral consideration and factual consideration. The decision of whether or not to break into your 94-year-old neighbor’s home and rape and kill her is not a complex moral decision. Again, she is minimizing the crimes. 

The success of Arkansas served as a model for our legislation in Ohio. These bills offer redemption for America’s children while still protecting public safety and the rights of victims.

Either Mrs. Lehner is unaware of the problems 256 has caused or she is ignoring those problems. And as someone who has worked with many victims who are impacted by 256, I will make this very clear. 256 does not protect victims. 256 mandates that these criminals be eligible for parole every 5 years. See this page for more info on how mandating parole hearings every 5 years is cruel. 

And Mrs. Lehner talks about public safety. Nothing says public safety more than giving multiple changes for aspiring serial killers like Gavon Ramsay to be released. Again, we know that recidivism is high, including among juvenile criminals. We know that psychopathic criminals cannot reform. This is dangerous. And what about victims who have legit fears of retaliation and who are endangered by 256?

The bipartisan legislation by Durbin and Grassley will help begin to create a federal juvenile justice system that respects children’s human rights and reflects our values as Americans.

There is no human right to hurt as many people as you want in whatever you want and then get out of prison. And endangering victims, endangering the public, and traumatizing victims does not reflect our values. 

 Senators Portman and Brown, and Ohio’s entire Congressional delegation, should lead on these urgently needed measures to make the federal youth justice system more compassionate and fair.

There is nothing unfair or uncompassionate about giving criminals punishments that fit their crimes and protect society. There is nothing uncompassionate or unfair about protecting victims from retaliation and re-traumatization. What is unfair and uncompassionate is forcing victims to repeatedly relive the most devastating events of their lives and putting them in danger. 

No child is beyond our help or hope.

No juvenile is beyond hope except TJ Lane. Again, science shows that some offenders cannot reform.