Opinion by Evelyn Lundberg Stratton: Youth in adult prison, the ‘forgotten ones,’ except in Ohio

Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com
February 20, 2019


Justice (ret.) Evelyn Lundberg Stratton

As a Justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, I became very interested in juvenile justice issues, even though, as a former trial judge, I had never had a juvenile docket. I started the Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and Criminal Justice, and we had a very active juvenile justice subcommittee. I also joined a national effort to work on juvenile justice reform. Ohio was part of that work, and we succeeded in passing significant legislative reforms in Ohio.

Ohio has long been a leader in juvenile justice reform. RECLAIM was a highly successful funding method to redirect monies to local courts and communities if youth were treated in a local setting rather than sent to detention through the Department of Youth Services.

As a result of the efforts of many partners and collaborators, Ohio reduced its population of juveniles in the youth prison system from a high of 2,600 to a low today of 543, even leading to the closure of unneeded facilities. However, one group was left behind, a group that almost no state or national efforts focused on: youth people, ages 14 to 17, bound over to the adult system.

“The forgotten ones,” I called them. Once they “aged” out of the juvenile system and turned 18, they were automatically sent to adult prisons all over Ohio. Yet in 2013, 60 percent had sentences of 5 years or less and would be released unprepared to survive in the outside world.

There was plenty of research on the horrible outcomes of kids in adult prisons, including high levels of victimization and physical and sexual assault, unmet serious mental health needs, unique and unaddressed educational needs. Also, the research showed that a youth’s brain and maturity continued to develop until age 25.

I tried to interest some of the national funders we were working with on this matter, even taking them to visit the youth prison. I didn’t get any takers, but proudly, I can say that the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, under the leadership of former director Gary Mohr, decided Ohio would act on its own. His staff worked with me and several committed child advocates.

The state located new facilities for these young people where their needs could be better met. All were moved to Orient Correctional Reception Center, and we created Unit 1 and Unit 2 of the Correctional Reception Center Juvenile Unit, the Youth in Adult Prison (YAP) Program.

Unit 1 is for the 14- to 17-year-olds. If appropriate, upon turning 18, they move across the hall to Unit 2. The Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act requires “sight and sound” separation for sleeping and other matters for those under 17, but the law allows combined supervised training and programming, so these youth can continue their education.

Our advocates worked on youth specific programming with the new staff, who were excited and energized to receive these kids. The Department of Youth Services conducted joint training of their staff and guards. The staff added mental health counselors, developed many youth-centered programs, increased the family involvement, engaged community and peer mentors, taught life and financial managements skills, even added a program to train the kids to assemble bikes from kits for other children. I could not be more proud of what the staff has done.

There are thousands of kids who go into prison as adults. Some start in the juvenile system but after age 18 go directly to adult prison. Many of them get out in a year or less, totally unprepared to survive in the adult world.

Because the Reception Center is a clearinghouse for incoming prisoners to be assigned to their respective facilities, I still have a goal to pull out the appropriate kids, ages 18 and 19, and put them in Unit 2 or a similar facility with youth-centered services. This would make available to them these wonderful programs, so they leave prepared to face the world and not return to prison. I see signs of some new traction on this goal and look forward to working with Gov. Mike DeWine, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Youth in Adult Prison Program to make the second group no longer a forgotten population as well.

Stratton is a former justice of the Ohio Supreme Court

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