Ohio Commits to Change

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A court-mandated reform plan for Ohio should mean more use of small, community-based programs for youth and the hiring of more staff at detention facilities.

“I think it’s going to make an enormous difference for kids,” Amy N. Swanson, executive director of Voices for Ohio’s Children, said of the class-action settlement on behalf of the 1,700 kids incarcerated statewide.

The language of the settlement – which calls for evidence-based reforms, among other system-wide changes – “is unprecedented,” said Swanson, who will serve on a team that will monitor how the agreement is carried out.

State Department of Youth Services (DYS) Director Tom Stickrath issued a statement saying the agreement “turns a new corner in DYS history.”

That history, the settlement says, includes “use of force by staff, isolation practices, the absence of acceptable mental health care and other appropriate programming, overcrowding, and … deficiencies in education” that put youth “at risk physically, psychologically, and educationally.”

The suit was filed in December 2004 by the Children’s Law Center, the Youth Law Center and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center.

“Now the work really begins” to “revolutionize” the system, said Janet Moore, staff attorney for the policy center. She praised Gov. Ted Strickland (D) for his commitment to reforming DYS, noting that such a high level of support will drive the “culture change” that’s needed at the agency.

The agreement, estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million to implement fully, calls for an infusion of new funding for DYS operations, reforms in the process through which youth are released from custody, and support for evidence-based community programs for low-risk offenders. It emphasizes the use of small (12- to 48-bed) community-based facilities that “keep appropriate juveniles as close to home as possible” and near community services.

It also says DYS must hire 115 juvenile correctional officers for eight correctional and rehabilitation facilities.

Although Swanson said the state budget is “really pinched,” she said the governor appears committed to funding DYS so that it can adhere to the settlement.

Shay Bilchik, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and Systems Integration, will also serve on the monitoring team, which will also include mental health and youth advocates.

“We are going to be monitoring and tracking the progress from an advocacy lens,” Swanson said.

See the Voices statement and get links to the settlement agreement at http://www.vfc-oh.org. See the settlement and the fact-finder’s report at http://www.dys.ohio.gov/dysweb/PressReleases.aspx.