Hamilton County juvenile court program keeps kid felons out of Ohio’s juvenile system
Leo Fedorov, a Hamilton County probation officer, talks with a 17-year-old and his mother during a hearing at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Center Thursday February 9, 2017. For 10 years a Hamilton County program has been quietly diverting kids from juvenile prison as a way to treat their mental illness and/or substance abuse.(Photo: The Enquirer/Cara Owsley)Buy Photo
- Ohio’s juvenile prison is more expensive than Harvard
- Researcher: When a C-plus is ‘darn good’
- ‘Ups and downs, but glad we are here today’
- Back in school, promises to do better
Judge John Williams asks the tall, thin teen in front of him if he has any idea how many people were shot last year in Hamilton County.
“No, sir,” the 17-year-old answers as he shifts in his chair.
“Four hundred, and 30,” the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge tells the kid who is in front of him in early December for taking a loaded .32-caliber gun to Woodward High School back in October. A school security guard discovered the gun in the kid’s backpack during a random search. The teen, who admitted buying the gun in Northern Kentucky, has been locked up in the Hamilton County Youth Center ever since. In years past, the felony charge would been an automatic ticket to juvenile prison. But on this day, the judge is taking a chance on the kid a first-time offender, who likes school and hasn’t given his mom many problems.
Williams is sending him and his family into a specialized and highly-demanding program aimed at treating his mental illnesses, behavioral and substance abuse issues while he lives at home and goes to school here. If the kid and his mom agree, he will have between 10 to 15 workers all hyper focused on treating him for months. And by nearly every measure, the program is among one of the most successful in the state at keeping kids out of the revolving door of recidivism. This and dozens of similar programs are part of Ohio’s massive juvenile justice reform started decades ago, which has cut juvenile prison stays by more than two-thirds in less than a decade. But neither the kid nor his mom know anything about that standing in Williams’ courtroom. And neither can they know the daunting work that lies ahead.
It will require him and his mom to come to court sometimes once a week, then every couple weeks. They will have to participate in individual and family counseling at Lighthouse Youth Services, he will have to submit to drug screens, get substance abuse treatment if necessary, report to his probation officer weekly. And get back and stay in school. And Williams tells the teen, he will be watching.
“If you screw this up, if you are out all night, if you don’t listen, guess what happens? I will lock you up. If you do anything like this again, I will lock you up,” he tells the teen.
“Don’t let me down. Don’t let your Mom down. Do not let yourself down.
“Do you understand that? The teen hangs his head: “Yes, sir.”
Williams take a deep breath, pauses and then adds:
“We all want you to do well.”
Year in juvenile prison exceeds Harvard education
In juvenile court circles, the program is loosely referred to as the mental health docket. Its more formal title is IDD, which stands for Individualized Disposition Docket. Loosely modeled after a similar program in California, it has been a quiet collaboration between the court, Lighthouse Youth Services, Hamilton County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board and Mental Health Access Point. Based on early successes, it expanded to include the Pretrial Diversion Docket (PDD) that seeks to catch kids earlier in the court system.
It’s an oddly elite club. Because of the individual work, each docket can handle just 15 kids at any given time for a total of 30. It remains one of a dozen or so programs funded by the state’s Behavioral Health/Juvenile Justice Initiative (BHJJ) to reduce the number of youth who are locked up, reduce criminal justice’s revolving door of incarceration and as a means to shutter many of Ohio’s Department of Youth Services facilities. And, ultimately to save taxpayer money. Hamilton County received $248,383 in state money for its program in fiscal year 2016, said Ryan Geis, Ohio Department of Youth Services deputy director of parole, courts and community. And that’s just a slice of the $4.8 million ODYS sent to Hamilton County last year. National research has repeatedly shown that locking up juveniles doesn’t work as a deterrent and increases their rate of re-entering the adult prison system.
Not to mention that it is incredibly expensive. The cost of sending just one kid to juvenile prison in Ohio for just one year cost taxpayers $185,810.55 in fiscal year 2016, according to Ohio Department of Youth Services data. The price tag includes 24-hour, seven-day a week care: Housing, food and education as well as medical care. The costs are high because the kids in state custody need highly specialized care from highly trained staff. Of the 478 juveniles admitted to a state facility in 2016:
- Half needed special education.
- All of the girls needed mental health treatment.
- Just under half of the boys needed mental health treatment.
It is unclear exactly how much the Hamilton County program costs per teen because the level of services is tailored to each teen, experts say. But the state funding for the initiative averages about $5,000 per youth, according to a 10-year oversight report published in April 2016.
Researcher: When a C plus is ‘darn good’
But the benefits are deeper than just dollars, researchers and juvenile justice experts say.
“It’s really the old ‘pay now or pay later’ line,” says Jeff Kretschmar, a research assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University. “And paying later is a whole lot more expensive.”
Case Western provides independent oversight of the state’s Behavioral Health/Juvenile Justice initiative. By nearly every measure the community-based programs work. And that’s why that the state did not cut funding for the programs in the recession-rough years of 2008 and 2009, he says. The governor’s budget this year did not cut or reduce current funding.
“This is saving you the most money and, oh by the way, the kids are getting better,” Kretschmar says. And that getting better part is really the point, says Ryan Geis, deputy director of parole, courts and community at the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
“The main reason is not money. It’s more effective,” Geis says. “You are trying to rehabilitate a kid and prepare that kid for adult life.”
The success of Hamilton County’s program has been stunning, Kretschmar says. Just over 75 percent of the kids complete it, compared to 66 percent who complete similar programs across Ohio. And none have had to be committed to the state.
“Some might see that as a C-plus and not think that’s great,” he said. “But the level of need these kids need is intense. They have so much going on: Substance abuse issues, mental health issues … so many challenging things.
“So, 75 percent looks pretty darn good.”
Magistrate David Kelley presides during a hearing at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Thursday February 9, 2017. (Photo: The Enquirer/Cara Owsley)
‘Ups and downs, but glad we are here today’
Even so, it’s a bumpy road. Just ask Tricia Ledebetter.
On the same day the kid with the gun entered into mental health court, Ledebetter’s 17-year-old son was graduating from it finally.
Her son was charged with felony theft after he and several buddies stole various items from a house where a friend had been housesitting. They also damaged areas of the home, according to police reports. Her son completed the program after more than 18 months, which is more than three times longer than average. The twice monthly reports to Magistrate David Kelley, indicate her son was attending school, but was continually testing positive for marijuana and was not complying with treatment plans. Several months into the program and things went further sideways: He didn’t come home, he was arrested and was back in juvenile court on arrest warrants. He was nearly booted from the program. He was re-admitted after drug tests come back negative and he started following the program.
That teen’s journey is common, Kelley says. The teen says he know he screwed up, but says the family therapy and mental health diagnosis and medication he now takes helped him get on the right track.
“It made me and my mom get a lot closer,” he said. “I learned a lot. I have to stay out of trouble. I don’t want to go to jail.”
Instead, he’s back in school. And if he can make up the credits he missed, he may even graduate from high school this spring — or over the summer. Ledebetter said that while the program was demanding, she remains grateful: “There’s so much help out there that I never knew about … I can’t say enough good things about it.”
Kelley, too, was pleased:
“This was quite an accomplishment,” he tells her son. “We did have quite a few ups and downs, but I’m glad we are here today.”
Back in school, promises to do better
It’s been a rocky start, too, for the teen who took the gun to Woodward, which brought a mandatory expulsion from Cincinnati Public Schools. Finding any school to take him back has been a Herculean task. He got in to a charter school largely because of the work of the program’s education specialist. That role is relatively new to the program and he works to communicate — and advocate for — the needs of these kids to school officials. Because of privacy considerations much of that communication was lacking.
The teen should be back in the classroom Monday.
“That’s an extremely positive development,” he tells her and her son. But then comes the bad news. The teen has missed several meetings with his therapist, his probation officer Leo Fedorov tells Kelley. If this continues, Fedorov says he may ask the court to put the teen back on home incarceration. Kelley is clearly not pleased: “You’ve got to make this a priority. Your schedule will only get busier once you get into school. You are here on a very serious charge, a gun charge.
“And missing appointments?” he says. “I am not going to tolerate it.”
Leo Fedorov, a Hamilton County probation officer, rights, talks with a 17-year-old during a hearing with magistrate David Kelley, far left, at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court Center Thursday February 9, 2017. For 10 years a Hamilton County program has been quietly diverting kids from juvenile prison as a way to treat their mental illness and/or substance abuse. (Photo: The Enquirer/Cara Owsley)
The teen hangs his head and vows to do better.
But promises don’t go far here.
“Unless you get a note from Mr. Fedorov saying otherwise,” the magistrate tells him. “I’ll see back here in a week.”
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