State v. Nicholas
Donovan Nicholas was tried as an adult and ultimately sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for a crime he committed at 14 years old while suffering from severe mental illness. Donovan was denied access to the juvenile justice system despite substantial evidence as to his amenability to treatment.
Juvenile Law Center joined Children’s Law Center, Cuyahoga County Public Defender, and other advocacy organizations in filing an amicus brief in support of Donovan in the Supreme Court of Ohio. The brief urged the Court to provide clear guidance that Ohio law presumes children remain in juvenile court, and that such a presumption requires the prosecutor seeking transfer to present evidence affirmatively demonstrating a youth’s lack of amenability to treatment. We further argued that the juvenile court in this case improperly conflated the unavailability of treatment with a lack of rehabilitative potential, and erroneously considered mental illness an aggravating factor. Additionally, our brief emphasized that transfer to adult court harms children and fails to make communities safer.
The Supreme Court of Ohio held that the state does not need to produce affirmative evidence of a youth’s lack of amenability to treatment when seeking transfer to the adult system. However, the Court held that in Donovan’s case, the lower court’s perception that the juvenile system lacks the necessary resources to treat his mental illness is not supported by the record. Further, “[t]he question of a juvenile’s amenability to care and rehabilitation in the juvenile system is one of the juvenile’s rehabilitative potential, and it is separate from the question of the services the state has to offer.” For these reasons, the Court held that the juvenile court abused its discretion by transferring Donovan to adult court.