MAHONING COUNTY Juvenile court shifts focus to rehabilitation

Alternative sentencing options will be used to help curb a return to crime.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County Juvenile Court officials say it's time to turn the corner on the way youths are treated in the system.
They want to move from "warehousing" delinquent kids to restoring them to productivity, and have developed a plan they hope will change the way juvenile offenders are treated.
It's called the Balanced Approach to Restorative Justice (BARJ) and puts the emphasis on rehabilitating juvenile offenders rather than simply locking them up with no attempt to rehabilitate them.
"It's an idea whose time has come," said Judge Theresa Dellick of juvenile court. "Where are these kids going to go? They have to go back to society."
Overcrowded: James Lowe, director of detention at the Martin P. Joyce Juvenile Justice Center, said the 40-bed facility is bursting at the seams, holding an average of 65 youths a day. Adding more lockup space isn't the answer.
"If we had 80 beds, we'd have 105 kids," he said.
Officials plan a proactive approach to stem the tide of juvenile crime in the county and utilize alternative sentencing options for those who end up in the justice center.
Programs like day-reporting, in which offenders would be allowed to spend nights at home and required to report to the detention center in the morning, would help ease the overcrowding, Lowe said.
While at the center, the children will participate in structured activities and receive instruction in life skills. They will also be made to meet with victims of crime who will help them understand the impact of their actions. In most cases, offenders will not meet with the victim of their own crime.
Juvenile court officials developed a countywide strategic plan for youth and families in March 2000. That's the framework for the new approach to treating juvenile offenders.
"The system before was punitive," said Ralph Ricci, court administrator. "All you looked at were things that were negative about the kids instead of the positive. All we were doing was warehousing kids here."
Dellick's influence: The philosophy changed when Judge Dellick took office earlier this year and implemented the BARJ system, developed by a national association of juvenile court judges.
The strategic plan identified a series of risk factors that are most likely to cause delinquency among local youths. All children who are admitted into the detention center will be screened to see whether any of those factors apply to them.
If risk factors are identified, the child will be referred to an appropriate local agency for treatment. The idea is to change the pattern of behavior and cut down on the 65 percent recidivism rate at the juvenile facility, Lowe said.
Parental involvement: Success of the program will hinge on involvement of the juvenile offenders' parents, who will have to participate in some programs themselves as well as encouraging their children to do the same.
That will be a challenge because a lack of parental involvement in their lives is a big problem for many of the youths who enter the system. Though the detention center has a daily average population of 65, it averages only 15 visitors per week, Lowe said.
"Some of these parents really don't care that their kids are locked up," he said. "In fact, they probably consider it a breather."
He said parents who refuse to participate in the programs could be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Judge Dellick said officials don't expect the new approach to work for all children.
"I hate so say so, but some of them are already lost before they get here," she said.
The hope is that the majority of them can be turned around and restored to a positive lifestyle.

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