Ohio Reinvents Community Youth Corrections

Bill Howard
November 1, 1996

Fifteen-year-old Rawanee D. slumps in a straight-backed school chair, staring into a corner of the detention room's blank walls. She's bored and seems contrite.

It is mid-afternoon—the eighth day of the teenager's 10-day commitment to the East Akron YMCA's Phoenix Day Suspension Program by order of Summit County Juvenile Court Judge Saundra Robinson. Rawanee (not her real name) had landed here for skipping school and thus breaking the terms of her probation on a felony assault charge.

Three more girls, also probation violators, sit quietly in the room's other corners. One is adding and subtracting fractional numbers with different denominators—and getting the answers correct. A YMCA youth worker monitors the girls to prevent any socializing. They are allowed two restroom breaks a day and given a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.

On entering the program youth are tested to determine their reading and math knowledge levels. Each day, they undergo 90-minute work sessions of reading and math and listen to lectures on such topics as the dangers of drugs and contracting AIDS. There are three one-hour slots when they must simply sit in silence— writing letters, working math problems, or just staring at the walls.

In an adjoining room youth workers observe 11 teenage boys undergoing the same tedious regimen for breaching their probations Some days the $80,000-a-year, Phoenix program headed by Dennis Enix also houses truants arrested by police patrols for violating Akron’s day curfew ordinance. The law prohibits kids under 18 from being on the streets from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during school days. Violators may be taken to the YMCA by van: Enix said, and "often they're marched here by a bicycle cop handcuffed at the end of a leash."

Asked by a visitor what she thinks about being transported by van every day to the Y’s dreary confinement room, Rawanee responds spiritedly: "I don't like it. It's not the place to be. It’s like 'scared straight.' This is my first time here — and "when I get out I'm not coming back!"

A 'Human Landfill'

That is exactly what Judge Robinson and Bryan Williams, the court's 31-year-old administrator, hope will happen with Rawanee and the others. And, indeed, a 3- to 10-day dose of this form of low-level detention does work for many kids. "The recidivism rate is low because it is such a boring experience — deliberately so — they'd rather stay in school," said Williams. Teens also are aware that their next parole violation could send them to the county's juvenile detention center for several days and a total loss of freedom.

The day suspension program operating during school hours is one of two dozen graduated sanctions for adjudicated delinquents that Judge Robinson has carefully woven with funds from RECLAIM Ohio as alternatives to committing youth to secure state-run Department of Youth Services (DYS) corrections facilities.

Enacted four years ago, RECLAIM Ohio has broken what had been an iron grip of old guard "lock 'em up" juvenile court judges over the DYS' correctional system, and is promoting development of offense-appropriate community corrections. But bringing about reform has been a traumatic struggle.

In the early 1980s, when they were still jailing runaways by the drove (and later led the nation in jailing youths for ignoring their "valid court order" rules), Ohio's juvenile judges persuaded the legislature to allow them to send off to secure state detention any youth convicted of any type of felony, even first time car thieves and other non-violent property offenders who presented little danger to themselves or the public. DYS was obliged to pick up the entire "hotel bill." At the same time, DYS was stripped of its authority to contract for direct placement of youth in lower cost community-based programs near to their homes, and this money was turned over to the juvenile courts.

Instead of continuing to contract with the local programs, recalls Bob Mecum of New Life Youth Services in Cincinnati, who headed a statewide association of community based agencies back then, "County commissioners supplanted their general funds with the DYS subsidies to support the courts and the courts started setting up their own service programs. Immediately hundreds and hundreds of community beds closed in Ohio.

"Over time the population of DYS facilities mushroomed, plunging them into a nightmarish crisis. Kids were getting hurt. A female staff person was killed."

By May of 1992, despite periodic additions of more beds, the daily population of DYS facilities had swollen to 2,538 — some, 180 percent of capacity. "The place was like a reactor ready to explode, says Carol Rapp-Zimmermann, DYS deputy director who heads up RECLAIM Ohio. "We couldn't do any reclamation of these kids. It was a human landfill."

‘Progressive’ Reformers

DYS chief Gino Natalucci-Persichetti, a holdover from Ohio's prior Democratic administration, came under heavy fire for the numerous ugly incidents of abuse and injury to inmates that were being headlined daily in Columbus newspapers. Republican Gov. George Voinovich named then lieutenant governor Mike DeWine, now Ohio's GOP U.S. senator, to head up a task force to investigate.

Donna Hamparian, a Columbus-based consultant to Community Research Associates in Columbus, recalls that the dour DeWine took the job seriously and became "very concerned that kids get better services."

The upshot was Persichetti’s proposal for RECLAIM Ohio which Voinovich okayed and to the astonishment of Ohio's youth work community — with DeWine's lobbying passed the legislature despite stiff opposition from Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Juvenile Court Judge David Grossman and other conservatives. It was the dawn of a new era.

“The new law has worked an amazing turnaround in community-based services for kids," said Mecum, who's New Life Youth Services are now a RECLAIM Ohio provider to Grossman's court. "Gino is the hero. He took some of the worst shots in seeing it through."

Today, says Rapp-Zimmermann, in spite of a steady 4 percent annual growth in juvenile felony convictions across the state, the DYS juvenile correctional population is below 2,000, a 20 percent reduction. “When it dropped to 1,952 earlier this year," she said, "it was a red letter day. The first time I'd seen a 'one' starting the daily figure in the nine years I've been here."

Edward J. Loughran, a former chief of Massachusetts' Department of Youth Services and a RECLAIM Ohio consultant to Franklin County (Columbus), said he's impressed by what's being accomplished. While several of the state's 88 counties are not yet up to Summit County's level, he said, the new program nonetheless was "bringing in real system reform."

“Gov, Voinovich bought into RECLAIM Ohio 100 percent and put in some serious money. He and Gino Persichetti were very progressive to acknowledge kids were coming out worse from state institutions and many less serious offenders would be better off in corrections programs at home than being locked up with hardened delinquents."

Charge-Back Formula

Summit County Judge Robinson, elected in 1990 and the mother of two sons in their 30s, said she was only too happy to sign on as one of nine pilot county programs to help launch RECLAIM Ohio in 1994. “The state was sending our kids back untreated and unaffected — obviously community-based programming makes a lot more sense."

With RECLAIM Ohio money, she said, “we try to analyze what a child needs to stay out of trouble. Whether it’s bribing the child, threatening the child—whatever it takes to get children through their stupid period where they don't have sense enough to know the dumb things they do now can hurt their entire future."

RECLAIM Ohio works fiscally on a charge-back basis. DYS' Rapp-Zimmermann said all counties are allocated corrections funds according to a formula based on their projected percentage of the state's total annual juvenile felony convictions. Dollars are calculated by multiplying the state's per diem for secure detention ($120) by the average length of sentence (6-8 months) times 25 percent of the average number of all felons convicted.

“If a county has 10 percent of the felons, for example, it gets 10 percent of the money," she said. Juvenile courts can do with the money whatever they please. Some have invested in more probation officers rather than correctional programs, Loughran said. They must, however, pay 75 percent — $90.75 — of the per diem for each felon sent to DYS. This amount times the number of commitment days is deducted from their monthly check from DYS.

The state picks up the full cost of incarcerating some 300 murderers, rapists, and other big-ticket offenders with no charge-back to the counties. It also guarantees to confine any youthful felon after a county uses up all its RECLAIM Ohio allocation.

Critics in the youth service field still question the wisdom of placing so much money — and patronage power — at the disposal of juvenile court judges. In some jurisdictions, there are fears judges will once again ignore existing local services and set up their own programs. But Mecum feels more likely the reforms will stick.

First, because the old order is changing and new judges like Summit's Robinson are more progressive. But more practically, he said the RECLAIM Ohio law specifically bars court-run programs from receiving federal Medicaid and Title IV-E funds for children of welfare families housed in foster care. Denial of those funds would make most such operations insolvent.

Right now community corrections appear to be working pretty well. The bottom line for DYS’ Rapp-Zimmermann is the program's low recidivism rate — only 12.6 percent of RECLAIM Ohio youth treated in 1994 were later committed to DYS reformatories, she said. And the trend is continuing.

Status Offenders Gone

Currently, Judge Robinson's RECLAIM Ohio annual allocation is $4.4 million. Half the money goes back to DYS to house youth convicted of violent crimes and the other $2.2 million helps fund the growing array of community-based corrections for mostly property-type offenders.

Ned Loughran regards Summit County's program as a model because its use of more than 100 community service agencies for referral of families and imaginative development of graduated sanctions. The latter run the gamut from court-ordered fines, restitution. drug treatment programs, house arrest, day detention and/or attendance at the YMCA's Phoenix Alternative School, assignment of adult advocates to mentor troubled youth, on up to residential placement locally, secure DYS commitment, or being bound over to adult court. (See chart next page.)

One measure of how far Ohio's reforms have come: along with several other busy county juvenile courts, Judge Robinson no longer sees status offenders. Police youth divisions handle them in station house diversion programs. First-time caught shoplifters also may be dealt with out of court. If the youth agree, retail merchants refer them directly to an eight-hour re-education program.

In setting up the new dispositions, court administrator Williams said, the judge addressed the six behavioral factors spelled out in the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's 1993 Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent and Chronic Offenders as contributing to delinquency. They include hanging out with delinquent peer groups, poor school performance, high crime neighborhoods, weak family attachments, lack of consistent discipline and physical and sexual abuse. "We also read everything we could find on community-based sanctions," he said.

Advocates are Street Ph.D.s

Behavioral experts were consulted to help design sanctions and advise on how they should be applied. The result: "Our whole program concept is accountability. It's more disturbing to kids to face their problems the way we face them in this program than it is to lock them up for six months. They can do that standing on their heads. But when they, along with their advocates, have to confront themselves and their families with some real shortcomings in their lives, you’ll see these kids starting to cry."

Since the program's inception the number of juvenile felonies adjudicated in Summit County, which has a total population of 515,000, including Akron's 200,000 residents, has dropped by some 9 percent a year to an estimated 1,400 this year. Much of that improvement is attributed by Judge Robinson and Williams to the home-based Summit County Advocate Program operated under contract by a Harrisburg, Pa., nonprofit — Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP).

The firm, which runs similar mentoring programs along the Big Brothers/Big Sisters model in five other states and the District of Columbia, seeks to keep young felons arrest-free through daily "face to face" contacts extending from 7.5 to 30 hours a week. It also works with troubled kids to remove them from out-of-home placements (see page 41).

Summit's advocates, Williams said, may be cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters, nieces, aunts as well as strangers to the family but living in the same community. Academic degrees are not demanded. There is, however, one pre-requisite. "They have to have a Ph.D. in the neighborhood, a thorough understanding of the community and the streets where the kids are coming from." Their primary task: "work with the whole family on whatever they think is contributing to delinquency."

15 Percent Failure Rate

Currently, Summit has about 20 youth worker advocates responsible for a total of some 55 youth. They are paid $8 an hour by Youth Advocate Programs, Inc., which charges the county $14 an hour. The $6 difference goes into program administration. The firm also provides a stipend for youths when their advocate can't find them a job.

Two years ago, Judge Robinson recalls, she had to deal with two brothers aged 10 and 11 who were arrested for stealing a car — "a relatively low level offense that bothers the public no end." Sent home on probation the pair continued to take more cars for joy rides. Their career total topped 50 vehicles.

"When they were arrested a third time, I knew I couldn't let them back out on the street," she said. "And at the same time I still was not going to incarcerate these little kids. So we wound up assigning a personal advocate to each kid." The brothers have been arrest-free ever since.

Overall, the advocate program's failure rate is relatively low; only 15 percent of treated youngsters wind up being incarcerated. What makes some become losers? Tim Dempsey, who oversees YAP programs in Ohio's Summit, Cuyahoga, Columbiana and Medina Counties, said that typically it will be a youth who has been doing well for several months "then falls off the wagon and does something stupid." Such as: "His best friend comes by in a stolen car. They get arrested with maybe a bag of dope in the car’s glove compartment. Rarely do kids tell their advocate and the judge everything they've doing for them is bullshit. It's usually serendipitous. Bad decision-making after months of better decision-making."

Judge Becomes History

Summit's juvenile court is heavily trafficked, dealing with some 14,000 cases a year. That figure includes about 3,000 paternity cases, 4,000 traffic adjudications, 800 cases of dependent, neglected and abused children and some 6,000 delinquent and unruly kids.

Depending upon the court's diagnosis of a child's problem, Judge Robinson said that in addition to the advocate program and day detention she frequently relies on several more sanctions in making dispositions. Among them:

Day Treatment for felony offenders. Youths are required to attend programs in educational tutoring, substance abuse counseling, family counseling, community service and/or recreational activities conducted at YMCA and other local facilities from after school until 9:30 p.m. and for eight to nine hours on Saturday and Sunday.” The whole point is to not give the kids an opportunity to commit a crime," she said.

Phoenix Alternative School for youth under court supervision who are not thriving in their neighborhood schools or who have been suspended. "We don't want kids on probation moping at home watching soap operas." Run by the YMCA the school offers a regular high school diploma as well as GED certificates.

Sex Offender Outpatient Treatment was started by Robinson before RECLAIM Ohio funding because treatment by DYS was iffy. Many of the 80 offending youths being counseled in the program were themselves molested by an older sibling, stepparent or mother's boyfriend, she said, and were caught "passing it on down to other kids."

The judge has been working on a further innovation — establishing a local rehabilitation center for youths placed in secure detention — but it may not be realized. Last May, Robinson lost the Republican primary election for another six-year term and is leaving office in January.

She was defeated by Judith Hunter, clerk of Akron's municipal court, not long after two youths under juvenile court supervision severely beat up a female police officer and nearly cost her an eye. The highly publicized case left Robinson tagged as being soft on youth crime and not protective enough of abused and neglected children. Hunter won easily.

Will that mean the junking of all Robinson's and Williams' hard efforts to create a wide range of RECLAIM Ohio dispositions in favor of tougher sanctions against all young felons? Williams, who was campaigning as a Republican for a seat in the state assembly, believes whoever assumes control over Summit County's juvenile court after the November elections will keep RECLAIM Ohio programs going.

"It would be very foolish to throw them away," agrees Hunter. But she has a caveat. Because of the growing violent nature of youth crime today she thinks it is a mistake to wait until a teen has had an average of five felony arrests before acquiring a personal advocate, as shown by a recent University of Cincinnati study. "The police tell me street smart kids think advocates are a joke," she told YOUTH TODAY. "I'd assign them to kids much sooner."

Ohio's reinvention of community-based corrections for youth rocks onward.


Judge Saundra Robinson

Bryan Williams

Summit County Juvenile Court

650 Dan St.

Akron, OH 44310

(330) 643-2931

Tom Jeffers, President

Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.

2007 North Third St.

Harrisburg, PA 17102

(717) 232-7580

Dennis Enix, Dep. Assoc. Exec. Dir

East Akron YMCA - Phoenix Day

Suspension Program

110 Goodyear Blvd.

Akron, OH 44305-4098

(330) 784-0408 FAX 784-8477

Gino Natalucci-Persichetti, Director

Ohio Dept. of Youth Services

51 North High St., Suite 300

Columbus, OH 43266-0562

(614) 466-8783 FAX 752-9078


Ohio Reinvents Community Youth Corrections: Youth Advocates: Mentors in the ’Hood

Howard, Bill. "Ohio Reinvents Community Youth Corrections."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 52.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.