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Probate/Juvenile judge candidates debate in virtual forum

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The League of Women Voters of Athens County hosted a virtual debate for the candidates of the Athens County Court of Common Pleas Judge, Probate/Juvenile Division on Tuesday. 

The candidates, Kenneth Ryan and Zachary Saunders, answered questions submitted by community members. 

Ryan touted his background as a school teacher at Trimble High School, citing over 11,000 hours of classroom experience. He also boasted 13 years of experience practicing law.

“I’m just a little country lawyer who’d like to be a little country judge,” Ryan said. 

Saunders, Athens County assistant prosecutor, discussed his dedication to preventing the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Saunders stated a desire to focus on youth mental health both inside and outside of the justice system. He also addressed rehabilitation of juvenile offenders in order to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders. 

“We need to make it a point to rehabilitate the offender,” Saunders said.

At the beginning of the debate, the candidates expressed their grief at the recent passing of Juvenile/Probate Court Judge Robert “Bob” Stewart, a prominent figure in Athens County. Both candidates stated a desire to continue the success of his court. 

Experience  

Ryan spoke of his experience with many kinds of court dockets, including mental health related cases. He touched upon his family’s experience grappling with mental health issues and how it has impacted his handling of juvenile court cases.   

“You really have to know and understand a child,” Ryan said. “You have to know where they come from. You have to know their abilities, and know you can bring the best out of somebody.”

Prior to his work in the juvenile court, Saunders was a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. Saunders spoke about his involvement in various community groups based in Athens County and his close ties to 4 of the 5 school districts based in the county. 

Importance of mental health in juvenile court cases

One major topic throughout the debate was the role mental health plays in the juvenile court system. Both candidates spoke about their experience with this issue. 

Ryan touched on how his background as a school teacher shaped his ability to effectively represent children. 

Saunders addressed his background with numerous child abuse and neglect cases, pointing out the importance of continuing the court’s strong Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

“I’ve seen those tragic, tragic cases dealing with deaths of infants to individuals that are paralyzed for the rest of their life,” Saunders said. “However, there is that glimmer of hope, and if I can help determine what’s in the best interest of that child, whether it be reunifying with their parents or finding their forever home, I am more than prepared and qualified to do so.” 

Potential Reforms to the Juvenile Court System

Ryan spoke about potentially adopting a “broad spectrum youth program” in order to address problems that youth ages 0 to 18 potentially face.

Saunders said he wants to create after school programs for youth to keep kids out of trouble. He also plans to pursue grant funding for guardian ad litems, representatives appointed by a court to represent a child who isn’t capable of representing themselves.

Kate Marijolovic contributed to this report.

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