Professor writes about reform in juvenile justice initiatives

Alexander Wheaton, Staff Reporter

Are there better ways than jail to reform juvenile criminal offenders? That is what Gabriella Celeste, professor in the Schubert Center for Child Studies, examines in her new brief, “Getting it Right: Realigning Juvenile Corrections in Ohio to Reinvest in What Works,” which sheds light on the state’s history of juvenile justice reform and the impact on local communities in the greater Cleveland area.

Celeste’s brief follows the August announcement from the Ohio Department of Youth Services for more funding to community based alternatives to the detention of children in the juvenile justice system. The brief, which is available in full online, also highlights the long history of Ohio’s Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to the Incarceration of Minors (RECLAIM) program.

In Ohio and most of the United States, juvenile justice is instituted at the local level. While the federal government and some state governments standardize allocation of funds, arrest, indictment and punishment are all executed by local police officers and judges. Local governments also determine how their courts define offenses for which juveniles can be tried as an adult.

“Juvenile justice is entirely dependent on how it is enforced at the local level,” said Celeste.

Before the institution of the RECLAIM program, juveniles in Ohio’s justice system were sent to Department of Youth Services (DYS) correctional facilities. Children who spent time in these facilities showed high rates of recidivism, or relapse into crime, upon release.

In response to overcrowding in these facilities, the Ohio DYS began its first RECLAIM program in 1992, by making funding for community-based alternatives to detention available in counties with the highest juvenile crime rates. The program directed juvenile offenders out of expensive prisons, where the cost per child was up to $561.00 per day, and into cheaper, local reform institutions.

Though the initial RECLAIM program sparked investment in community program development, the DYS provided few guidelines for the types of programs in which local governments invested the funds. At the time, local governments favored short, boot-camp style programs, which employed “scare them straight” tactics to reduce recidivism rates, Celeste said. However, recent research shows that children who attend boot camps are actually more likely to engage in criminal activity.

Despite this, the country saw gradual reductions in juvenile crime in the middle to late ‘90s. Still, juvenile justice records continued to follow children into adulthood. Early community programs proved ineffective and local governments often failed to expunge records of juvenile offenses.

The old system, according to Celeste, “made it very hard for kids to have a true second chance, to screw up and not have it follow them for the rest of their lives.”

A resurgence of juvenile crime in 2000 prompted a closer look at the RECLAIM program’s success.

A shift in funding towards more evidence-based programs followed. Non-profit organizations evaluated youth rehabilitation programs for measurable outcomes like recidivism and school attendance, and the DYS issued stricter requirements for use of RECLAIM money.

According to Celeste, this led to increased use of programs that led to lower recidivism among adolescents for $9,000-$11,000 a year, as opposed to the $561 per day while incarcerated. Local governments reallocated fundings to programs like these, which showed better results than DYS facilities.

The changes announced in August by DYS will make funding freed by the closure of all but three state correctional facilities available to all Ohio counties, not just those with high juvenile crime rates. When prisons close, the savings are usually rolled back into the state general fund and used to pay state debts or reduce taxes. By sending those savings instead to local governments to invest in local programs, Celeste says competitive RECLAIM “provides fiscal incentives for local judges to better the juvenile justice system.”

In this regard, Celeste says Ohio has set an example for the rest of the nation.

“This work informs policy makers about the consequences of being caught up in the juvenile justice system so they have a better appreciation of why young people do what they do,” she said.

Grants for the new competitive RECLAIM program will be released early this year, the brief describes, and stakeholders across the nation will be watching to see the new policy’s effects Ohio youth and communities.