Twenty-five years after Ohio’s juvenile prison system was on the brink of crisis, the state has become a model for how it treats teenage offenders, says a new report from the Ohio-based Juvenile Justice Coalition quoted by the Northeast Ohio Media Group. By sending more teenagers to community-based alternative programs instead of traditional prisons, the state has dramatically decreased the number of incarcerated teenagers and saved millions of taxpayer dollars, the coalition says. Still, there are areas where Ohio can improve, said coalition director Erin Davies. “Ohio’s de-incarceration programs are less expensive and more effective than prisons when youth are matched to the right programs,” she said.
Ohio’s juvenile prisons in the early 1990s were “at a breaking point,” said the Columbus-based nonprofit. In 1992, nearly 2,500 children were locked up in 11 juvenile correctional facilities, which were built to hold 1,400. It was projected that within a few years the number of inmates would hit 4,000. State legislators created a pilot program in 1993 sending grant money to nine counties that local courts used to divert non-violent juvenile offenders from youth prisons and into supervised, community-based programs. Those programs connected the children with family counseling, mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and other services that they otherwise were unlikely to get. The number of incarcerated children in those counties dropped by more than 40 percent in the first year, and 85 percent of the courts in the program said they were pleased with the results. This year the state housed less than 500 children in youth prisons, just one-fifth the number from 1992. Some of the programs cut the recidivism rate in half, all while saving the state millions of dollars in juvenile prison costs.