The juvenile correctional system in Ohio professes to have a structured environment to help reform youth offenders. But throughout the state a large number of teens aren't being reformed their first time in lock up. Some believe the lack of structure outside those walls causes them to fall again and again. Infohio's Tarice Sims reports.
Tarice Sims- At the Cuyahoga Hills Boys School Principal Pvelskeski walks through the halls past teenage boys dressed in bland institutional jumpsuits. They are lined up, hands behind their backs waiting to be told when to walk to class. As they move toward the learning center, guards and counselors yell at the nameless young faces. Here as in all Ohio Department of Youth Services institutions, education is a big part of reform. In fact it's mandatory.
Allen Pvelskeski- We do attendance every period - if they're not there we find out where they are. We can't open up their head and pour it in, but we force them to go.
Eric Phillips- The education part of ODYS was the strongest part.
TS- Eric Phillips is a former resident of another ODYS institution called TECO which closed this year. Phillips was 13 years old when he was first locked up for stealing a car. At 15 he was brought back to ODYS for gang related violence.
EP- As far as me going into system and being deprived of education not knowing how to read so well ODYS did teach me how to be literate as far as reading mathematics and the education was good that was the best part of being there.
TS- Teachers at ODYS institutions follow the curriculum of the Ohio Department of Education, and are accredited by the state board. Classes are smaller than those in regular schools although resources like libraries and computers tend to be limited. Phillips says while ODYS gave him book knowledge about the world, he wound up a repeat offender because no one prepared him to face the world.
EP- I had a parole officer, she helped me out as much as she could, but I was still faced with how I'm gonna eat, how I'm gonna live, and watching others, I mean, you put me back in the public school system where the other kids looking good, dressing good, and here you are struggling because your momma don't have (a) job.
TS- Currently there are 2,100 juveniles in the system between 12 and 19 years old. In addition to classroom instruction each institution offers housing, food, drug treatment and recreation at a cost of $155 per juvenile per day. But once they are released Boys School Superintendent Cardell Parker says the youth are out of his hands and that's one of the more frustrating parts of his job.
Cardell Parker- That really isn't our function to follow up in terms of to see if the kid is successful or not. One of the ways we find out if he wasn't if he turns up back in our system again. But in terms of us keeping tabs no we don't. That's why I say one of the unpleasant parts of my job is I don't see a finished product.
TS- The state recently tracked recidivism among juveniles released in February and May of this year, to see whether they returned to ODYS, were sentenced to adult prisons or died while committing a criminal act. The study tracked 665 males and females after being released from ODYS. The recidivism rate was 21% after 3 months and increased to nearly 43% after 6 months. Kevin Miller is chief of policy and communication for the department. He says are always looking for ways to improve their programs but he says compared to other states Ohio is doing some very good things to help kids make the transition from ODYS back into society.
Kevin Miller- Because now these youth are out in their home communities, they don't have the locked rooms, fencing and the razor wire around the perimeter to keep them in they are of their own free will and in their environment. We have programs where they come into the office work on job skills or GED or work on placement help them get on with their lives as an adult.
TS- But Magistrate Patricia Yeomans says the young people who return to her courtroom sometimes don't fit into the structured programs that are offered. Yeomans has been a Magistrate with the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court since the early 90s.
Patricia Yeomans- I can see 10 kids today and every kid might need a different program. We don't seem to think that kind of individualized is important and the scary thing is, my mission at juvenile court. is to what does this kid need and we try and patchwork what we've got available. Try and find programs but we don't have enough of them we don't have enough spaces in the ones that we do have.
TS- Eric Phillips is one of the lucky ones. Remember him, he was first locked up when he was 13, went back to ODYS two years later, and then was sentenced to an adult facility after committing a third crime. Today, Phillips is a paid participant of the Young African American Reclamation Project a program offered through Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries. He credits the private organization for turning his life around.
EP- It's many people in this program that is volunteering and people that works here everyday giving they all, giving they best to help youths change direction. Because a lot of us been misguided and we didn't have, like me, if it wasn't for the Youth Employment Program of the Youth re-entry I feel that I wouldn't be alive today.
TS- The state commends the work of private programs such as the ones that helped Eric but there are few of them around. ODYS works as a referral system for them. In addition the state says it will continue to work on it's programs and with each County to enhance juveniles transition from institutional life to independence. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 FM.