The Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 30
Ohio has been recognized in recent years as a national leader in prison reform, for reducing recidivism and introducing programs to aid prisoners in their transition back to society.
Two of the Ohio reforms now gaining attention are community programs that keep young offenders out of juvenile lockups, and state grants to fund mental-health care in jails.
The idea behind both is that simply putting someone behind bars can make things worse; young people can become hardened criminals, and untreated mental illness can lead to even bigger problems for the community when a prisoner is released. Nearly all offenders will at some point be returned to the community, becoming either productive members of society or a continued threat and a drain on resources, so these efforts are in the best interests of everyone.
As a bonus, such innovations even can be achieved without added cost to the taxpayer. The mental-health grants come from money saved when the state’s mental-health and addiction-services agencies were combined in 2013. The budget for the Ohio Department of Youth Services has dropped by $58 million since 2008, as the state’s juvenile-incarceration rate has decreased more than 50 percent more than the U.S. average since the mid-1990s.
And over time, the savings can be much greater if even a modest number of former inmates avoid returning to prison, and youngsters get back on track rather than continuing a downward spiral into a life of crime.
These moves come at a time of a nationwide movement to reduce prison populations and focus on rehabilitation, in a move away from the “get tough on crime” clampdown that gained steam in the 1990s. Punishing the guilty is an important function of the justice system, but it’s not the only goal.
“I’m not talking about being soft on crime. I’m talking about being smart on crime,” said Franklin County Juvenile Court Judge Elizabeth Gill, a strong proponent of diversion programs for youth offenders. “The goal is to give these youths the best opportunity to grow into healthy, productive members of our society. They are kids. Kids mess up.”
They also are more likely to be derailed for life if they spend time in a juvenile lockup, studies show. Gill says spending just one night in a juvenile-detention center reduces a young person’s chance of graduating from high school by 50 percent, as it “exposes him or her to people who’ve done a lot worse things. You’re basically sending him to criminal school and exposing him or her to more trauma.”
The same can happen with adults who are mentally ill or drug addicted. The underlying causes often contribute to their crime, and left untreated will lead them to re-offend once released.
Though there are commonalities as to why and how people commit crimes, solutions can’t be one-size-fits-all. Gill admits it would be easier in the short run to simply send all young offenders to a detention center rather than a community-based program with tailored therapies. The recently announced mental-health grants will give counties and social-service agencies flexibility: They can use them to provide treatment programs in jails, or connect offenders with treatment options once they’re released.
The extra effort already has produced results, and holds even greater promise.