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Published: Monday, 8/19/2002

Detention program keeps kids in line, out of lockup

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

From inside St. Mark Lutheran Church in East Toledo, Ernest Jackson's voice has that buttery cadence of a preacher caught up in ecclesiastic zeal.

“You wake up and it's a great day,” he coos to a roomful of teens. “The birds are singing. The grass is green. The sun is shining.”

He drops to a near-whisper, piquing interest in the faces from the crowd around him.

“But somebody messin' with your mind? Your mi-i-nd? Know what you gotta do?”

Mr. Jackson is a summer educational specialist under contract with the program.

“You got to control that attitude,” his voice rises again, nearly to a shout. “Contro-o-l that happiness! Contr-o-ol yourself!”

Despite the sing-song fervor normally reserved for Sunday morning, this is no church service. It is, in fact, a weekday afternoon.

And this - though there are neither bars nor armed guards here - is Lucas County Juvenile Court's alternative to juvenile jail.

Nearly two years after the program began, more than 1,400 juveniles who normally would have been placed behind bars while they awaited a court date have participated in a program instead.

Offenders here are considered too high-risk to be sent home, but too low-risk to lock up in 24-hour detention. Instead, they report to community detention for 51 hours a week during the summer, where they attend anger-management classes, visit the homeless at community shelters, or pick up trash at local parks.

They plan their menus and cook their own food.

They walk in single file. They ask for permission - to use the restroom, to throw away trash, to get a drink of water.

And then they go straight home.

A community detention officer will check on them at least four times a night - in person and by phone - to make sure they are there.

If they are not there when an officer stops by, an arrest warrant is issued.

No questions. No excuses.

“We let them know from the start: This is detention,” said Kevin Szenderski, a community detention officer.

“They might not be jumping up and down to hear about this, but I tell them, `At least you're sleeping in your own bed at night, eating your own food, and using your own toilet.'”

For taxpayers, it is a lot less costly than lockup.

A day at community detention, which is administered by the East Toledo Family Center, costs $30, compared to a round-the-clock stay in the Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center that costs $97.

Court officials last year estimated that it would cost $445,000 to serve the 905 youths who went through the program, rather than the $1.5 million it would have cost to lock them in the new Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center on Spielbusch Avenue.

“Here, I've got to clothe kids, feed kids, shower kids, provide them with education, take care of their medical needs,” said court administrator Dan Pompa. “It adds up.”

It also separates lower-risk kids from the most hard-core offenders, so they don't become hardened themselves.

“If you place the medium-risk youth with higher-level offenders, they can learn those bad behaviors,” said Kendra Kec, the court's special projects director. “Now we provide them programming that meets their level of risk.”

It is the kind of program that is catching on in communities across the country, said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit organization out of Oakland, Calif., that analyzes policy in juvenile justice systems.

“[The programs] are way less expensive and more successful” than traditional juvenile jails, he said. “The kids [are] almost always succeed. The supervision keeps them on track.”

Ernest Jackson and the community detention program provide structure and guidance for juveniles. Ernest Jackson and the community detention program provide structure and guidance for juveniles.
BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Local juvenile court officials first envisioned the program in the late 1990s.

Fresh off a startling spike in juvenile crime, staffers at the aging juvenile lockup, called the Lucas County Child Study Institute, routinely hauled out cots in the evening to accommodate 100 or more delinquents housed in the downtown building. It had a capacity of only 75.

“It was a dangerous situation,” said Judge James Ray. “Often there was more danger for the kids inside [of CSI] than on the outside, frankly.

“We had to do something,” he said.

Judge Ray and others visited several other community detention programs across the country and consulted with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based private philanthropy that assesses conditions of disadvantaged children.

By the fall of 2000, magistrates and judges were diverting certain youths from Child Study Institute to community detention at the church. The program was run by the East Toledo Family Center.

The results were almost immediately measurable.

Even while bookings at CSI climbed 11 percent from 2000 to 2001 - from 5,282 to 5,865 youths, “bed usage” at CSI fell 15 percent in 2001, from 26,990 beds the prior year to 22,980.

On a nightly basis, average populations at the juvenile hall fell from 81 juveniles to 60, Ms. Kec said.

And that's the key, according to folks at the Casey Foundation.

Too often, courts make the mistake of filling up their community detention programs with youths who otherwise would be released to their homes.

In “widening the net,” the courts assign a low-risk youth, like a curfew violator, to a program full of rules and then places him under intense scrutiny. If he misses a court appointment or fails to appear for his day program, it appears to the court that he is thumbing his nose at the system.

He gets locked up.

“Now you have a situation where the kid is behind bars because he is a program violator,” said Bart Lubow, a senior associate at the Casey Foundation.

Eventually, those youths get caught up in the gears of the system, making it difficult to escape the machinery.

“The system processes kids,” said Maurice Moore, a program associate at the Casey Foundation. “It perpetuates itself.”

Even the most experienced court officials have to be vigilant in making sure they are assigning the correct youths to community detention, said Lucas County Chief Magistrate Donna Mitchell.

“We keep reminding ourselves that we're not creating supervision for children who should not be in detention,” she said. “Children who should go home [should] go home.

“Those who have no supervision at home tend to be candidates for community detention,” she said. “Serious offenders are not.”

It is not without risk. Three youths have walked away from the day program in the past, conceded Al Segura, a program coordinator.

“But that leaves a whole lot of kids who haven't [walked away,]” he said. “That's pretty successful if you ask me.”

Nearly two years after it began, local officials point to numbers to prove their point.

About 75 percent of the participants have completed the program without committing another crime or going AWOL from the program. The remaining 25 percent have not shown up for the program, their court hearings, or at home at their appointed time and have been returned to lockup.

“The program really saved our hide while we were in CSI,” Judge Ray said, referring to the overcrowding.

He said the county plans to continue the program, even though the new 125-bed Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center replaced CSI last spring and remains half-empty many nights.

Not only is community detention cheaper than lockup, its benefits to its participants are in some ways immeasurable, the judge said.

“We're finding that the outcomes are very good. These kids are showing up for their next [court] hearing. They don't commit those new crimes while they were waiting for that court date.

“We don't have any data on that,” he said, “but I feel some kids are turning around because of community detention.”



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