Does the juvenile justice system really work?

RELATED: Minority kids make up majority detained

By Ashley Luthern |


“Derek” is a 16-year-old city youth.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: A 4-part series
The Vindicator spent five months researching juvenile justice trends and Mahoning County’s juvenile justice system.

A breakdown of disproportionate minority contact rates and how the juvenile court addresses the contact.

A look inside Mahoning County’s detention center and programming for youths with specific needs, such as treatment for substance abuse.

A ride along with juvenile probation officers, who are the eyes and ears of the court as they travel throughout the county to check on youths.

An examination of what happens when a youth from Mahoning County is sent to an Ohio Department of Youth Services facility.

Like any other teenager, he enjoys football, loves his family and has made mistakes. He grew up on the city’s South Side with his two brothers, one older and one younger.

Two years ago, he started getting into trouble and was charged with several misdemeanors. As time passed, the charges began stacking up: assault, receiving stolen property, having weapons under disability.

When The Vindicator caught up with Derek this summer, he was taking computer courses at Mahoning County High School on the South Side. In exchange for speaking with the youths, the newspaper agreed not to identify them in photos or by name.

Derek hadn’t missed a day of summer school until he was picked up on a probation violation and placed in detention.

As part of his probation terms, he is to go nowhere other than school while on the South Side. He resides with his guardian in a suburb.

“There isn’t a lot here in Youngstown. All there is, is trouble,” Derek said.

YOUTHS and the law

Of the 1,105 young people referred to the Mahoning County Juvenile Justice System in 2011, about half were diverted to juvenile programs, and half were referred to prosecutors, who then decided whether a case should be pursued or sent back to diversion programs meant to keep youths out of the system.

The majority of youths referred to the center were for misdemeanor offenses, which totaled 448 in 2011, compared to felonies, which totaled 84 that year.

The intake data do not indicate who was adjudicated delinquent, which is the juvenile equivalent for being found guilty.

“It’s like making soup. In the adult system, everything from water to beef to vegetables is added. In the juvenile system, it goes through a strainer. The idea is to go into the intake process and prevent them from becoming officially part of the system,” said court Administrator Anthony D’Apolito.

The number of felony charges has declined in the last five years from 221 in 2007 to 84 in 2011. That’s 84 felony charges for youths in a county that has 51,338 children under 18, according to the 2010 census.

National data indicate that arrest rates of youths for violent crime (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) continue to decline. The national per capita violent-offense rate dropped from 500 per 100,000 of 10-to 17-year-olds in 1994 to fewer than 250 per 100,000 in 2010, according to data compiled by the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College.

“Whenever possible, we do not charge a kid for two reasons: No. 1 is labeling. The kid is labeled by his teachers, friends and neighbors as a ‘juvie’ kid. He or she begins to believe that they are just a delinquent and act accordingly,” D’Apolito said.

The second reason, he said, is that the deeper a kid gets into the juvenile justice system, the more likely he or she will be to re-offend.

“If a kid goes to [a state youth prison] or even county detention, you surround them with other juvenile offenders. It’s better to deal with this in the home and community,” he said.

That type of thinking about juvenile justice has been the dominant school of thought in Ohio since the early 1990s when the state’s Reasoned and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to the Incarceration of Minors (RECLAIM) program began.

RECLAIM gives funding to local juvenile justice centers to house and treat youths in the community instead of sending them to facilities operated by the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

The amount of money given to local juvenile justice centers is based on a four-year average of felony adjudications, similar to conviction, but money is deducted for counties that use DYS facility bed day usage in the prior year.

There are exceptions to the deduction called “public safety beds.” If a youth is adjudicated delinquent, or found guilty, of aggravated murder or murder (or attempting those crimes), kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, then there is no penalty for county juvenile systems to send those youths to DYS.

Aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary are not “public safety bed” offenses, but in the case of aggravated robbery with a three-year gun specification, it would become a “public safety bed.”

The goal of RECLAIM was to lower the DYS population. The number of youths at state facilities dropped from a high of more than 2,600 in May 1992 to about 650 in December 2011, according to DYS statistics.

“We cut DYS admittance for 2012 from 26 youths [in 2011] to 10. We led the state in cutting admissions and the goal next year is 10 again,” D’Apolito said. “But no matter what, if a youth is a public safety threat, they will be sent away.”

In 2012, Mahoning County juvenile court had a budget of about $6.5 million, receiving about $5 million from the county’s general fund, $1.4 million from RECLAIM and the remaining amount from grants.

“RECLAIM money is used for special projects, such as the sports program, and there has to be a quarterly and annual report for those. The goal usually is 90 percent completion and of the 90 percent who complete a program, 90 to 95 percent do not recidivate,” D’Apolito said.

Programming is an essential part of what the court does, he said.

“If we had a $3 million to $4 million budget, there would be no rehabilitation, no programing, nothing except to house them and give them hearings. And at the end of the day, we would have done nothing to help decrease juvenile delinquency,” he said.

Tracking success

The main difference between juvenile court and adult court is that juvenile court’s mission is to rehabilitate. Adult court is punitive or sentence-driven.

How does the court tell if it’s rehabilitating the county’s youths?

“Recidivism is the one main way we can measure success,” said Juvenile Court Judge Theresa Dellick. “Is our program working? How do you measure it? By asking: ‘Does a student re-offend?’”

Mahoning County has several specialty dockets: Treatment Court, Family Dependency Court, Education Court and DYS Re-Entry Court.

Programs include a sex offender program, sports, counseling, mediation and the Choices and Kids in Need of Direction (KIND) programs.

The court estimates about 90 to 95 percent of those youths who complete programs do not re-offend.

In fiscal year 2012, the mediation program had 57 adjudicated, or delinquent, youths. Of them, 56 successfully completed mediation and 53 of them did not have any new charges within three months of program release.

Mediation and other programs are used to keep kids out of the system. The sports program, for example, served 1,213 youths who were not found delinquent by the court and had no formal contact with the juvenile justice system.

“We also measure success by graduation rates and family success. Does the family remain in counseling? Are they off drugs and alcohol? Those are certainly different ways we measure it,” Judge Dellick said.

D’Apolito said if youths are diverted out of the system, an average of 5 to 10 percent of them will re-offend. The odds increase the deeper a youth gets into the system.

When youths are placed in county detention, their odds of re-offending are 20 to 25 percent, D’Apolito said. If youths are sent to DYS, they have a 50 percent chance of re-offending and of entering the adult criminal justice system, he said.

Judge Dellick said that is intuitive because the court classifies youths as low-, medium- and high-risk to re-offend.

“We sent them to DYS because they are high-risk to re-offend so it would only make sense that those are the ones re-offending,” she said.

Asked to provide an overall recidivism rate, the court could not.

“Recidivism is hard to track in its totality. It’s not measured by first contact,” D’Apolito said. “You can get a very clear picture of delinquency [through data] but you can’t really tell who has recidivated.”

Judge Dellick said the countywide electronic records system presents problems.

“The system that we have limits us on what we can collect data on, and it is limiting for us to run certain reports. We have to pay additional money to get that report run. One report can cost us about $1,500. The system also isn’t designed to collect all that data so a lot of times we do it by hand,” she said.

The judge said the court has to compile statistics on individual programs and specialty documents, which many of the youths in the system are part of. If a p

rogram isn’t working, then it’s re-tooled, and if it still doesn’t work, it’s dropped.

“Overall what you see with the programs and specialty dockets that we run, you’re getting a good idea of what we’re doing,” she said.

D’Apolito said it would benefit the court to track overall recidivism.

“I’d love to hire a person for that, but I would also like to be sure to allocate where I can make the most impact. So I would rather spend the money on programming than on hiring someone who can do data research,” he said.

Youth offenders

D’Apolito, who also serves as a court magistrate, said he has noticed three primary tracks for youth offenders.

There are the youths who will commit a serious, felony-level offense, such as murder or rape, with no prior record.

“I’ve always believed that we couldn’t have helped them because we didn’t know about them. They weren’t in our system,” D’Apolito said.

Then there’s the “slow track” of a youth who has his or her first contact with the system at about age 10, maybe receiving an unruly juvenile offense. Then that youth will commit a theft at age 11 or 12, and then maybe a breaking and entering at 13 or 14.

“By age 15 or 16, they are committing violent offenses,” D’Apolito said.

Finally, D’Apolito said there is a third, and relatively new, fast track during which youths complete the “slow track” at an accelerated pace, about one or two years compared to five or six.

That’s where 16-year-old Derek falls. He was charged with half a dozen offenses in a span of two years. He’s spent time in detention but hasn’t been committed to a DYS facility.

“I don’t want to go to DYS. I don’t want people to look at me as someone who’s gone to DYS,” he said.

Still, it’s been a challenge for Derek to stay out of trouble. His older brother was indicted as an adult for gang-related activity this year.

Derek said he and his friends feel targeted by law enforcement.

“The cops are always trying to stop us for no reason. It’s hard to do what they want,” he said.

He said he’s been able to relate to his probation officers better through court programs and has a better understanding of the mindset of law enforcement, but he said law enforcement usually doesn’t relate to him.

“They don’t understand how we feel. You have to feel the pain to understand. We are young, and nowadays people our age are likely to get killed. Six of my close friends — not just friends, but close friends — are dead. They don’t know how that feels,” he said.

Police Perspective

Youngstown Police Chief Rod Foley said historically, there has been a disconnect among city police, juvenile justice system and youths.

“We’re trying to be more involved with the Boys and Girls Club, and we’re having the call-in with [youth offenders] to try to build that rapport and give them a way out. If we want to make systemic changes, we all have to turn to ourselves,” Foley said.

Foley said things are improving with the support of city hall and the creation of the Community Initiative To Reduce Violence (CIRV).

The police department also has had two in-service training sessions with officials at the juvenile justice center.

“When I first became chief [one year ago] there was a frustration, a subtle frustration, among officers of: ‘Didn’t I just arrest him last month?’ We’re used to the adult system where at least they’re usually in jail for a while,” Foley said.

D’Apolito said he talked to officers about the juvenile justice system’s goals and sentencing laws.

“I heard from officers about their frustrations particularly with burglaries, and a burglary isn’t something that will usually get a youth sent to DYS, but it’s something I will look at more carefully after hearing from them,” D’Apolito said.

Judge Dellick said another police concern is sentencing of youths found to be possessing guns.

“A gun has to be brandished or used, mere possession by the law is not enough” to send a youth to DYS, the judge said.

“But if there is a gun and a student is found to have used it, that student is sent away. Our mission also includes a responsibility to protect public safety,” she said.

Foley said his department now has a better understanding of the juvenile justice system and a good working relationship. The department also partners regularly with juvenile probation as part of the Mahoning Valley Violent Crimes Task Force.

“We understand more now. We got past that frustration,” Foley said. “But my goal is to help re-evaluate RECLAIM because it is setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. You should only have so many bites at the apple.”

The chief also said he would like to see more state and federal money allocated to juvenile justice facilities and said he thought the county detention center should be expanded so that youths could be detained until a situation “cools off” to prevent an act of violence.

Judge Dellick said the center has extended the offer to hold youths to all police departments.

“That’s different from detaining. It’s not where they go up to the floor, but we could do it to help with those situations, but obviously we have limited space. The problem is we’re limited by law on what we can hold,” she said.

If a youth is brought in on an unruly juvenile charge, the state strongly discourages detaining him or her.

“They are a low-risk offender by definition so what have you done by putting that person in a detention center?” Judge Dellick said.

The judge also defended RECLAIM, emphasizing again that youths should be diverted out of the system to increase opportunities for rehabilitation and decrease chances of recidivism.

Coming Together

Throughout the country, police departments, juvenile justice systems and other agencies and stakeholders often seem to have different philosophies and don’t understand one another, said James Bell, founder and director of the national W. Haywood Burns Institute, which works to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice systems.

“In jurisdictions where we’ve worked, we’ve trained the cops that the juvenile justice system mission is not punishment. But when we surveyed them, that’s what they thought it was there to do,” Bell said.

“Clearly you’ll be frustrated when the kid beats you out the door. ... It’s amazing to me how three of the major players in the youth justice system — probation, court and cops — so often have no clue what each is supposed to do. With limited funds you can’t afford those inefficiencies, and at the Burns Institute we try to address that. Rarely can systems do it on their own,” he continued.

Janet Tarpley, 6th Ward councilwoman and a county juvenile justice employee, said the city needs to play a role, too, and make young people a priority.

“Look at where the kids are located, and if they have access to a park — and if they do, it’s not in their neighborhood. There are no basketball hoops in the 6th Ward, and we probably have the highest crime rates. The city itself has not invested in youth for the last five or six years,” Tarpley said.

Worse, Tarpley said, is that people blame kids for the problem.

“When I started in juvenile justice in 1987 working in detention, we could lock [kids] up for unruly, jaywalking, if they got smart with their teacher. Our cure all and answer to everything was to lock them up. Statistics showed that it just created harder criminals,” she said.

“However, the community’s saying, ‘lock them up,’ and they’re saying that because there haven’t been any other alternatives as far as supervision,” she added.

Tarpley, Foley and Judge Dellick have praised the CIRV program that has organized call-ins and provided open gyms for city youths during the summer.

“We want to emphasize block watches and athletic activities because that’s the easiest way for us to cross paths with the youths in a positive way,” Foley said. “There’s this myth that these kids like this environment. I don’t believe that.”

The chief said it’s important that kids have mentors to help them realize the scope of their actions.

“They start out doing property crimes and armed robberies and realize it’s not a continuous way of making money, so they get into the drug trade. It’s a dangerous game. You can’t let yourself be weak out there. You have to react to it,” Foley said.

“They’re making these decisions and not realizing long-term consequences. It’s like how juveniles don’t understand the mindset you need when carrying firearms. They are spontaneous and not rational,” he continued.

Foley hopes economic development will create more manufacturing and trade jobs and alleviate violent crime.

“We’ve seen an uptick in economic growth that will provide kids with the opportunity to get gainful employment so they aren’t resorting to the drug trade and violence that goes with it,” Foley said.

That’s the hope of 16-year-old Derek, too. He’s expecting to graduate in June and wants to enroll in trade school to become a welder.

“I want to finish school and get a job to have enough money to move my mom [from the South Side] into a better neighborhood,” he said.

Asked what advice he would give to other young people, he said: “The best way to avoid getting in here [detention] is keeping people in school so they have better opportunities to leave Youngstown and do what they really want.”

Ashley Luthern is a reporter for The Vindicator and a 2012 John Jay College Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.

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