August 22, 2014

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Juvenile prison return rates rising

COLUMBUS — Nearly half the youths who leave Ohio’s juvenile prisons return within three years, even though state taxpayers spend nearly $80,000 a year on each inmate, nearly three times what is spent on offenders in adult prisons, according to newspaper reports.

About 1,800 young people are housed in Ohio’s eight juvenile prisons on a given day for treatment and reform in a system that experts say fails too often, according to an investigation by The Columbus Dispatch published Sunday.

Some youths leave prison, find mentors and jobs, and go on to lead productive lives, but records showed about half of all juvenile offenders returned within three years, substantially higher than the adult three-year recidivism rate of 38 percent.

The Children’s Law Center, a nonprofit group based in Covington, Ky., says conditions are so poor at Ohio’s juvenile prisons that it’s filed three class-action lawsuits since 2004 against the Department of Youth Services. One lawsuit prompted the Ohio Department of Youth Services to hire consultants for $843,840 to spend a year evaluating the entire system.

The juvenile prison system is trying to help youths get the treatment they need, said Tom Stickrath, director of the Department of Youth Services.

“I know we have room for improvement — unequivocally,” he said. “Every day we ask ourselves, ‘What can we do better?”‘

The juvenile system’s budget was nearly $260 million last year, including parole and community corrections programs and money that goes to the county juvenile courts. Officials say that isn’t nearly enough to maintain order, provide the necessary educational and metal health services and keep some offenders from slipping through the cracks.

About 70 percent of the state’s juvenile inmates have been ordered to undergo treatment for mental illness while they’re incarcerated, but the juvenile prison system only employs 31 psychologists and assistants to provide those services.

Many juvenile offenders are skipping their required high school classes within the prisons, the investigation found. At the Scioto

Juvenile Correction Facility in Delaware County, 25 percent of the boys and 15 percent of the girls had unexcused absences from classes from July to December 2006.

Gov. Ted Strickland suggested lapses in education and treatment would be difficult to address without exploring ways to reduce violence at the facilities.

“If we can’t provide that sense of safety I think there’s little else we can do in terms of education or treatment or anything,” he said.

The juvenile prison system’s records are incomplete and lack a standardized system for reporting assaults, gang fights and guards’ use of force, the newspaper’s analysis found. However, the records revealed an upswing in violence at the state’s juvenile prisons.

Reported assaults in the prisons, both among inmates and between inmates and guards, nearly doubled last year to 2,520 from 1,305 in 2005, an increase Stickrath said was due to better reporting rather than increased violence.

Prison employees attribute much of the violence to too few guards and a thriving gang population.

The system has cracked down on guards who use excessive force and emphasizes nonviolent approaches to resolving fights, Stickrath said.

Officials should make reducing youth prison violence a priority, said Strickland, a former prison psychologist.

“You take a group of young people of various ages,” he said, “and you put them in a situation where they don’t feel the environment is predictable or controlled … and you’ve got a recipe for chaos.”