Ohio juvenile judges call for funding changes after newspapers’ youth prison investigation

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Ohio juvenile court judges are calling for appropriate funding for the state’s juvenile prisons and detention centers, more discretion in sentencing options and more community-based facilities to ensure safety and rehabilitation after an investigation exposed problems in the facilities.

The eight-month investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Columbus Dispatch, Akron Beacon Journal, Canton Repository and other USA TODAY Network Ohio newspapers found the system is overwhelmed by violence and doesn’t have enough employees to provide adequate security, education and mental health treatment for incarcerated children.

In response to the project, the Ohio Association of Juvenile Court Judges released a joint statement on Tuesday signed by the group’s president, Lorain County Judge Frank Janik.

Related:DeWine calls for group to examine problems at youth prisons after newspaper investigation

While the Ohio Department of Youth Services operates Ohio’s three youth prisons, county judges are responsible for sending kids there and also often operate local juvenile detention centers.

In their statement, the judges said:”The task assigned to the adults working in Ohio’s youth prisons is extraordinarily difficult, and the vast majority of those counselors, educators, and guards are dedicated to their work and to the youth they work with. Appropriate funding ensures that those facilities are appropriately staffed, to levels that ensure youth safety, and that allow for meaningful intervention in education and treatment, so that those youth may find that successful adult lives lie before them upon release.”

More:Kids Behind Bars: Chaos, violence and neglect plague youth prisons and detention centers

Within three years of release from DYS, about 43% of people either return to youth prison or enter the adult prison system.

Employees and kids in these facilities are injured − sometimes seriously − in fights and assaults.

The judges said that research shows incarcerating a youth is often harmful and thus judges have increasingly turned to alternatives, using incarceration in DYS as a last resort for those who’ve committed the most serious offenses or who have reoffended consistently.

In an interview, Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, who has been Summit County’s juvenile judge since 2003, said sending a juvenile to DYS is a last resort.

“I don’t think we should be sending kids to prison unless it’s absolutely necessary,” she said.

For the youths she sends to DYS, Teodosio said she checks in with them every 30 to 60 days to make sure they are behaving and getting the help they need. She thinks she may be one of the only judges doing this. She said her court also helps develop a re-entry plan for the youths. 

More: Special report: Ohio’s juvenile detention system struggles with violence, neglect

Teodosio said that juvenile judges should be given more discretion in their sentencing options. She said she once had a kid who was acting up in detention and she found out he had seen his father killed in front of him.

“It’s part of what we should be considering – a kid’s background, how many times they have been in trouble before,” she said. “Sometimes, this might be the first time a kid is in trouble, and we send them off to prison or the adult system. I think most parents expect the court to have discretion.” 

In an interview, Stark County Juvenile Administrative Judge Jim James said he avoids sentencing children to DYS when possible and prefers to send some youth to the Multi-County Juvenile Attention System in Canton, one of the state’s 11 county-run correctional facilities.

“That’s an advantage having one in Stark County,” James said. “Their family can be part of the treatment and visit with them and I think that is key to getting them on a good path. We’ve had success with that.”

More community-based correction facilities could be a solution, James said, but it would require putting more funding into the program while maintaining the youth prisons for more serious offenders.

James said the Department of Youth Services has to address safety issues.

“When kids don’t feel like they’re in a safe environment they are not going to start addressing their problems (that put them there),” the judge said. “They’ve got to control the violence that is occurring.”