Fewer kids are spending their adolescence locked up in state facilities.
Last year, there were just 578 admissions statewide to Department of Youth Services facilities, including both new and returning youths. That's about a third of the number in 2008 -- 1,614 admissions.
And that's not an accident. Judges, magistrates and others in the juvenile-justice system have worked to come up with alternatives to incarceration because, evidence shows, it doesn't make kids better.
"If they all came out of DYS and did well, we'd send them all to DYS," said Ed Latessa, director of the school of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati who helped develop the system used to assess juveniles' risk of reoffending.
But prosecutors, community organizers and others say that avoiding incarceration at all costs can put the community at risk. They point to the long, defiant records of kids who have escalated to deadly violence as proof.
The latest example is 17-year-old Devonere Simmonds. He and 18-year-old Nathaniel Brunner are charged with two fatal shootings on the South Side. In one, police say, Simmonds was caught on surveillance tape shooting a carryout clerk.
Simmonds has a long record of juvenile offenses, including two delinquency counts of carrying loaded handguns, and probation violations. A month before the deadly shootings, he cut off his electronic ankle monitor.
That's not a surprise to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, who said his office routinely asks that juveniles be held in detention when they are accused of serious crimes, especially those involving guns. He acknowledges that it's not easy to predict which juvenile offenders will escalate to more-serious crimes.
"But ... when you have thugs that repeatedly commit felonies, repeatedly violate probation, repeatedly commit new offenses, ... I don't know why, if you catch them, you think suddenly and magically they're going to follow the court's order and behave themselves in the community," O'Brien said.
Judges and magistrates look at the youth's risk of reoffending, his danger to himself and society, and his amenability to rehabilitation. They also look at what the youth needs, whether it's substance-abuse or mental-health treatment, stable housing or counseling.
"DYS incarceration is, and had been for years, viewed as a last resort," said lead Magistrate William Kirby of Franklin County Juvenile Court.
Beginning 20 years ago, initiatives such as RECLAIM Ohio financially encouraged courts to choose community-based options -- residential treatment, house arrest or counseling -- rather than send kids to state custody.
But while the low DYS admission rates are seen as a success statewide, people who live in troubled neighborhoods have questions.
"If they had two, three, four thousand kids locked up a couple of years ago, and now they only have 200, where are those kids at?" asked Cecil Ahad, president of Men for the Movement and a youth mentor. "Those are the kids like Devonere, ... (and) they're letting them out.
"That's what keeps the violence going," he said. "They're just turning them loose on the street."It's a daily frustration for police officers, too.
"It is a revolving door," said Sgt. Rich Weiner, a Columbus Division of Police spokesman. "We'll lock them up for drugs or guns, and the next thing you know, they're back on the street doing the same thing. It's a slap on the wrist."
The Ohio Revised Code mandates graduated sanctions for juvenile offenders, Kirby said. It also dictates that dispositions should provide for the well-being of the children, protect the public interest and safety, hold the juvenile accountable, restore the victim and rehabilitate the offender.
"I certainly feel the frustration of the community as it relates to these kids, and I certainly feel the frustration of the courts as it relates to the children," lead Juvenile Court Judge Elizabeth Gill said.
But most kids on probation and electronic monitoring do well, said Cecil Howell, the juvenile court's special-services probation supervisor. Of the 1,125 youths being supervised by juvenile probation, about 155 are on electronic monitoring.
"For the most part, electronic monitoring is a useful program to divert kids who would pick up additional (negative) behaviors in detention," Howell said. "When it comes time to look at a lockup situation, that individual really has to pose a risk to himself or his community."
O'Brien said he understands that incarceration isn't the solution. But he thinks the prosecutor's recommendation, especially when a youth has committed multiple offenses, should carry some weight.
"People who carry guns and are 17 years old and people who commit felonies at 17 years old and have long juvenile records are people who should be held," he said.
But you can't lock up kids and throw away the key, Judge Gill and Kirby said.
"The doors open when these kids are 18 or 21," Gill said. "And if they haven't been treated, if they aren't provided with alternative services, if they haven't been socialized ... they're going to come back out much worse than they were."
Teens in trouble
Youths who end up facing homicide charges, or as homicide victims themselves, often have lengthy criminal records, but not always. A look at 2013 cases:
Charged with delinquency counts of murder
--Devonere Simmonds, 17. (Accused, along with 18-year-old Nathaniel Brunner, of killing store clerk Imran Ashgar on July 24 and 17-year-old Lamont Frazier on July 25.)
--Record: A probation-violation warrant was filed on June 26 after Simmonds cut off his ankle monitor, which he had been wearing because of a burglary charge. He has a series of juvenile offenses, including two delinquency counts for carrying concealed, loaded handguns in 2011, and probation violations.
--Steven Lee, 16. (Accused along with Eric Thomas and Davonte Johnson of fatally shooting Celestine Ganga, 43, over a marijuana joint on April 26.)
--Record: Three disorderly conduct cases; no active cases or probation at the time of the shooting.
--Eric Thomas, 14.
--Record: Two petty-theft cases, one of which was pending at the time of the shooting.
--Davonte Johnson, 13.
--Joseph Q. Reeder, 14. (Accused of fatally shooting Anthony Hines, 64, and stealing his wallet on Feb. 4).
--Record: Put on electronic monitoring after found driving without a license and failing to pull over on Jan. 20. He cut off his ankle bracelet on Jan. 29.
--Shyquan Washington, 17. (Accused of supplying a gun that Jesean Callender allegedly used to fatally shoot 15-year-old Kaewaun Coleman outside Linden-McKinley High School on Jan. 17. Found incompetent to stand trial and placed in a residential treatment center for counseling aimed at making him competent.)
--Record: Sixteen other delinquency cases had been filed against him since 2007. He had repeatedly been found incompetent to stand trial since 2009.
--Jesean Callender, 16.
--Record: At the time of the alleged shooting, had six delinquency counts filed against him, including two gun charges. He repeatedly violated probation and had a warrant for his arrest after going off electronic monitoring.
--Kaewaun Coleman, 15.
--Record: He was on electronic monitoring as he awaited trial on delinquency counts of criminal damaging and assault in February. He had a history of violating probation, which he had been on since being convicted of a delinquency burglary count for breaking into a North Side town house in July 2011.
--Ivan T. Smith, 17. (Body found behind a Northeast Side house on May 17. He had been shot.)
--Isaiah Giles, 16. (Fatally shot at an East Side apartment complex on July 15.)
--Record: He had several warrants out for his arrest on charges that included possession of marijuana, criminal damaging and truancy after failing to appear for hearings. He also violated the terms of his electronic monitoring.
--Lamont Frazier, 17. (Fatally shot at the corner of Oakwood and Forest avenues on July 25.)
--Record: He was on probation from a 2010 case of receiving stolen property -- a car. In the past three years, he'd violated probation by disregarding his electronic monitoring, leaving shelter care and disobeying staff at a residential treatment center. He had been put on intensive probation through November of this year because of a delinquency count of attempted robbery.
Source: Franklin County Juvenile Court records
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