Analysis Law and Policy

Juvenile Courts: The Only Way ‘Justice’ Was Possible in the Steubenville Case?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial highlights the complicated role we ask our juvenile courts to play.

Read more of Rewire‘s coverage of the Steubenville rape case here.

On Sunday, Judge Thomas Lipp issued a verdict of delinquent (the equivalent of “guilty” in juvenile court) to Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond for raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. The judge then moved on to the sentencing phase of the proceedings, but his remarks sounded more like a lecture than a sentencing; it seemed as though he blamed the crime on everyone involved in the case, not just the two young men. And there’s good reason for that.

The history of the juvenile justice system, and the role it was designed to play in our culture, can help us make some sense of the Steubenville rape trial. When the first juvenile courts were created at the turn of the 20th century, the idea was that the justice system sometimes needed to function as parens patriae, or “parent of the country.” This term refers to the state’s authority to act as the guardian of certain individuals, including children whose parents or caregivers have failed. To that end, the juvenile court system was designed to serve in loco parentis, or in place of the parent.

This parens patriae foundation was grounded in cultural beliefs of the time that still inform the function of the juvenile court system today. Those beliefs include the idea that childhood is a period of dependency during which parental supervision is essential for survival. Also, it’s understood that it is up to the family, not the state, to provide that supervision, but that the state should play a primary role in educating children and forcefully intervene if the family fails to provide sufficient support, nursing, supervision, or moral training. And at their core, juvenile courts were designed to operate under the notion that offenders, by virtue of their age alone, can be rehabilitated.

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From the moment Judge Lipp took over the case, it was clear he took the role of parens partriae very seriously. Keeping the proceedings in juvenile court, rather than adult criminal court, guaranteed a few things. One, Judge Lipp, not a jury, would hear the evidence and determine guilt. In hindsight, this seems to be a good decision on behalf of the victim, since the defense attorneys in the case made the cornerstone of their argument: “not affirmatively saying no means she said yes.” Then there were the individuals in the media who lamented the tragedy of Mays’ and Richmond’s convictions. Rape culture runs deep in our society, and reasonable doubt becomes an easier hurdle to clear if slut-shaming and victim-blaming are our default framing. I would like to believe a jury would have also convicted these two young men, but I’m not so sure.

Keeping the matter in juvenile court also gave Judge Lipp wide discretion in determining how these young men would be punished. Unlike in adult criminal court, where judges have virtually no discretion in fashioning sentences, judges in juvenile court are given a wide latitude in crafting juvenile dispositions (sentences). In this case, both young men were sentenced to serve time in a youth detention facility. Mays will serve a minimum of two years, while Richmond will serve a minimum of one year, and both young men can be held in the facility until they are 21 years old.

A four-to-five-year maximum sentence seems in some ways inadequate, compared to the depravity of these young men’s actions. But committing them to a juvenile detention center was the most severe punishment available to Judge Lipp. These facilities are prisons, where Mays and Richmond will be treated as inmates. Once at the facilities, they will be assessed for treatment needs, and the ultimate length of their sentence will be tied to the treatment goals that are set for them. Mays and Richmond also face the possibility of becoming registered sex offenders; that will be determined when they are released.

All of those actions fit within the court’s role of punishing unlawful acts. But rendering justice requires accountability, and Judge Lipp made it clear that the juvenile court had limited reach in rendering justice. Judge Lipp gave his sentencing determination almost immediately after rendering his verdict, and those sentences showed little, if any, consideration of individual mitigating factors, like whether these two young men had any prior run-ins with the law. So even though Judge Lipp had an opportunity to craft a more lenient sentence, he passed. In fact, when faced with pleas for leniency by the attorneys for the young men, Judge Lipp remarked, in a stern, paternal manner, that given the facts of the case, keeping the case in juvenile court was all the leniency the defendants were entitled to.

When handing down the sentence, Judge Lipp placed blame for the crime not just at the offenders’ feet, but at the community’s as well. Where were the adults in all of this, Judge Lipp demanded to know. While these two young men are about to be sent off to a youth prison, justice demands that the adults acknowledge and be held accountable for their failures as well. When sentencing Mays and Richmond, the judge was clear that he believes this crime would not have happened, nor would it have been excused and covered up, if there had been an adult presence in the boys’ lives—if they hadn’t lived in a community that privileged football over student safety, taught young men they were above the law, and told young women they were disposable. In Judge Lipp’s view, that absence is tied to the students’ extensive underage drinking, the explosion of the story on social media, and the threats and pictures related to the crime.

While it’s easy to read that admonishment as victim-blaming and a perpetuation of rape culture—and to some degree it is—it’s also an accurate reflection of Lipp’s role as a juvenile justice officer. By definition, he and the juvenile justice system cannot step in unless the adults have checked out, and in Steubenville, the adults had clearly checked out.

It’s impossible to count the number of missed opportunities coming out of Steubenville, but the delinquent verdict of the two teenagers is not one of them. They will be forced to pay, in some fashion, for the crimes they committed, which is more than can be said for many rapists. The young woman who so bravely spoke out and continues to persevere in the face our rape culture can hopefully take some solace in the fact that her claims were vindicated, if imperfectly. And after the juvenile proceedings came news that the Ohio attorney general is looking into convening a grand jury for charges against all the adults who knew and stood silent.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

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