The juvenile justice system in Ohio is changing from teen felons being kept in large state-run prisons to smaller but still secure facilities scattered around the state. One of those sites is in New Lebanon with 50 beds for juvenile offenders. Michael Garrett, Director of the Center for Adolescent Services, said the facility is designed to keep kids in a secure environment and at the same time continue their education.
The goal, said Garrett, is to keep them focused on becoming responsible citizens, rather than giving up and thinking they are destined to spend time in prison later as an adult.
"We don't want them to feel like this is the end," Garrett said.
Statewide the Ohio Department of youth Services held 3,000 juveniles at one time, but now it has dwindled to just 500. Youth crime is down, but most of the change is attributed to more offenders being kept in regional facilities. The CAS facility in New Lebanon originally was meant for teen felons from Montgomery County. Now though 10 to 15 beds are for girls who come into the juvenile system from around the state.
If the trend continues, with more teens from around the state being housed in facilities like CAS, some advocates worry about whether the system can handle it. Defense Attorney Jay Carter has seen the system change in recent years, noting more kids are being convicted of violent crimes that previously were only committed by adults. He wonders if the system will be able to handle the sift to housing more teen felons locally.
"I do see it becoming a problems in capacity at the local level," Carter said.
Drug crimes and increased violence are the top concerns of parents like Amy Sprowl of Dayton. She has had extended family members in the juvenile justice system and now is working to make sure her son stays out of trouble.
"The violence and intensity has gotten worse," Sprowl said. She hopes changes in the juvenile justice system do not interfere with the main goal of keeping kids from growing up and turning into adult criminals. "It's a battle, walking out your door. Whether it be drugs, crime, anything. To get the crimes to stop, it's got to be the youth to start with," Sprowl said.
James Cole, Administrator of the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, said if the system places more kids from out of the region here he believes the staff at CAS can handle it. He is, however, not as optimistic about a proposal that has been discussed at the Ohio Statehouse to combine the adult prison system and the Ohio Department of Youth Services. Facilities for juveniles and adults would remain separate, but administrative functions would be merged. Cole said juvenile judges are against it.
"That is not good for the kids. As a former adult prosecutor, I would not want to see that take place," Cole said.
Many of the changes in the system have been motivated by a combination of scarce financial resources and the need to place teens in a more supportive environment. Keeping kids local can mean more visits from family members. Still, Erin Davies, Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, said not enough of the funding is following the teens when they go from the state facility to local institutions.
"State funding is critical because these youth are so complex and their needs are so complex," Davies said.