Mistreatment seems to lead to recidivism rather than rehabilitation. Studies have found that nationwide three-fourths of youth are re-arrested and up to one-half are re-incarcerated within three years after release. Also, a good proportion of incarcerated youth are locked up for non-violent offenses. In Ohio, for example, more than a third of youth admitted to DYS are committed for non-person related crimes, such as those involving property offenses or drugs. Locking up kids for these types of crimes is expensive.
The annual cost to incarcerate one juvenile offender in Ohio is $161,000, far more than the price of tuition, fees, room and board at the most elite institutions of higher learning. Meanwhile, for a fraction of the cost, nonresidential alternative programs routinely yield equal or better results. Also, a handful of rigorous treatment methods for serious youth offenders -- teens who commit person-related crimes -- routinely outperform incarceration, despite a much lower price tag.
Perhaps no state has taken these lessons to heart more than Ohio. The population of youth confined in state juvenile corrections institutions fell from more than 2,600 in 1992 to just more than 600 in December 2011, with most of the reductions coming in just the past four years. Declines resulted from litigation and far-sighted reforms adopted by governors and state legislators from both parties.
Ohio has implemented many of the strategies outlined in the No Place for Kids Report:
» Limiting placement of low-level offenders through a law allowing only felony offenders to be committed to state facilities, plus a new risk- assessment process.
» Changing financial incentives to reward local jurisdictions that provide treatment and supervise lower-risk youth in their communities.
» Providing substantial state funding for nonresidential alternative programs, especially treatment models with credible evidence of effectiveness.
» Opening smaller, less expensive community corrections facilities as an alternative to incarceration in large prison-like institutions.
Yet, even with these efforts, two recent reminders have highlighted the need for Ohio officials to continue rigorously on the road to reform. On Dec. 16, Ohio Youth Services Director Harvey Reed signed a settlement agreement pledging to abandon practices that led to the pepper-spraying of teens in Ohio's Scioto and Circleville Juvenile Corrections facilities this fall. An inquiry by national experts found that guards' use of pepper spray was not justified.
"None of the youth were armed; none were barricaded; none were physically violent; none were engaged in targeted aggressive movement toward staff; and none were engaged in striking, grabbing, pushing or punching of staff," the report found.
On Jan. 5, a federal court monitor noted Ohio's continued failure to meet constitutional requirements for mental health treatment, violence reduction, educational opportunity, and limits on the use of seclusion. The report highlights a need to find more effective ways to keep severely mentally ill youth out of DYS and to provide more effective treatment and interventions for youth confined in state facilities.
Ohio must make improving safety and rehabilitation for youth locked inside its juvenile facilities a high priority. What should be done?
First, Ohio should continue to push the envelope in moving young people away from incarceration and into effective nonresidential programs and community-based programs whenever possible. Even with the state's commendable progress reducing reliance on incarceration, many of the youth held in facilities pose a minimal threat to public safety. DYS remains the default placement for many youth with serious mental illnesses who can be better served in community programs designed to meet special needs. Likewise, many youth are confined solely because they reside in rural areas where intensive high-quality alternative programs are scarce. Also, because of mandatory sentences, many youth remain in Ohio's facilities far longer than research shows is necessary or beneficial. With Gov. John Kasich's support, judges were granted some additional authority this year to reduce juvenile lengths of stay, but far more flexibility is needed.
Second, Ohio's leaders must draw a line in the sand and insist on safe, therapeutic treatment for confined youth. After eight years of litigation to correct unconstitutional and unacceptable conditions in DYS facilities, and three years after the state signed a settlement agreement committing itself to fundamental reforms, our leaders should declare 2012 a make-or-break year. Facilities must be made safe for youth and staff, without continued reliance on seclusion or other heavy-handed responses. The need for meaningful mental health services and programming must be met, and all youth must receive appropriate educational services. Effective re-entry services must be a priority to reduce the flow of youth back into the system, and ensure success upon release.
The number of youth entering DYS facilities has been dramatically reduced, and Ohio officials deserve credit. But we must not give short shrift to youth who remain in facilities, many of whom are mentally ill, and disproportionately youth of color. We should not be content until we know Ohio's system for the treatment of delinquent youth is fair, constitutionally sound and provides the opportunity for meaningful change.
Children's Law Center Inc.