Repeal law that revictimizes those already suffering
More work still remains in undoing the damage inflicted on victims of juvenile crime by the 2021 enactment of a juvenile parole bill. The legislation banned juvenile offenders — no matter how brutal or heinous their crimes — from ever being sentenced to life without parole and also made them eligible for a parole hearing every five years. The only exception was if a juvenile killed three or more people.
It was a ridiculous decision by our legislators and Gov. Mike DeWine, who signed the bill, that left victims and their families devastated and appalled.
Our region has had many, many juvenile offenders convicted of horrible crimes, but perhaps the two poster children in demonstrating why this bill was bad legislation are Jacob LaRosa and Timothy Combs.
At age 15, LaRosa brutally bludgeoned to death his elderly neighbor Marie Belcastro in her Niles home. He was sentenced to life without parole, the harshest sentence available in 2018.
Timothy Combs, then 17, was the juvenile co-defendant of infamous convicted killer Danny Lee Hill, involved in the brutal 1985 beating death of 12-year-old Raymond Fife in Warren. Combs died in 2018 at age 50 in prison. Hill, of course, remains in prison, repeatedly appealing a death sentence imposed 35 years ago.
LaRosa remains imprisoned, but under the new law would not have been eligible for a life sentence and also would have been eligible for parole every five years.
Now, we are relieved to see progress in rolling back the law under an omnibus criminal justice bill, Senate Bill 288, that included a “Victims Matter Amendment.” DeWine signed that new bill into law last month.
Victims and their families have said SB 256 revictimizes them, forcing them to endure painful and traumatic unnecessary parole hearings.
Brian Kirk, the grandson of 94-year-old Belcastro, has been traveling around Ohio the last few years raising meaningful awareness of the law’s effects and calling for its repeal.
“Knowing that LaRosa could never harm another innocent person gave my grandmother’s death meaning. SB 256 took that peace away,” Kirk said after the law’s 2021 passage. “Knowing we’d have to defend our safety every five years at parole hearings was a huge betrayal.”
We applaud Kirk’s efforts and the aggressive but reasonable method he is using to communicate his message.
His work is not done, though.
One egregious part of SB 256 that remains law states that teen offenders may not be sentenced to life without parole sentences unless they killed three or more people.
One frustrated local assistant prosecutor described that part of the law this way: “The fallacy of Senate Bill 256 is that politicians have now given murderers under the age of 18 two free murders before facing life without parole.”
We agree. What were our legislators thinking?
While we understand kids make mistakes and, generally speaking, people often deserve a second chance. But cases that involve things like brutal deaths of Marie Belcastro and Raymond Fife leave no question that these offenders should remain locked up with no opportunity to ever step foot outside prison and run the risk of again committing such carnage.
Sadly, not everyone can be rehabilitated. And frankly, juveniles convicted of such heinous crimes already have been given a second chance, because, in Ohio, they do not face the death penalty.
Further, the process of converting a juvenile case to adult court is arduous, with many hoops created for the very reason of protecting juveniles like this.
But once they’ve cleared all the hurdles, it’s because it’s been proven that the defendant deserves to be tried in adult court.
Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Becker has said SB 288 is a step in the right direction, but it falls short. He especially takes exception with the fact that a juvenile in Ohio can be given life without parole only if that juvenile kills three or more people.
“This is not based upon any rational reason or empirical data but was rather a fiction created by certain politicians who didn’t want to face backlash in their own communities, such as Chardon, where school shooter T.J. Lane killed three people,” said Becker in calling out two legislators from the eastern Cleveland suburbs.
“Those politicians knew they could never explain to their electorate why they were eliminating life without parole for their own local murderer.”
We applaud Kirk, and urge him and others to continue their lobby efforts on behalf of crime victims in Ohio.
And we urge our lawmakers in Columbus to realize the damage this legislation has caused victims and to repeal the remaining parts of SB 256 swiftly.