Prosecutions of juveniles decline; advocates in Lucas County credit behavior coaching

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  • Jaequen Smith used to threaten his teachers, pick fights at school, and cut class.

    A few years ago, such behavior surely would have landed the 14-year-old in juvenile court. Instead, the eighth grader talks through his problems with Kevin “Coach” Coburn, 41, and Deonte Moss, 24, who are both behavioral coaches placed at Leverette Middle School and paid by the Lucas County Juvenile Court.

    “Really, they can't help you unless you want help,” Jaequen said of his coaches.

    Now Jaequen is getting a handle on his temper, improving his grades, and sitting in detention less often. Although his misbehavior earned him suspensions at least twice a month last school year, he said he hasn't received a single suspension this year.

    Fewer children are now being prosecuted in Lucas County, as well as in Ohio and nationwide. Some child advocates credit changes in how juvenile misbehavior is handled in the state, with fewer children arrested and more being funneled into behavior modification programs like the one at Leverette.

    Others suggest that fewer crimes are actually being committed by juveniles.

    “So far what I'm finding this year is everything is down and down significantly,” said Lucas County Juvenile Court administrator Dan Pompa. “So either, A: kids are committing less crimes, or, B: we're arresting less kids. And my educated guess would be we're arresting less kids.”

    Only 8,401 juvenile criminal cases were filed last year in Lucas County Juvenile Court — the lowest number the court has seen since 1995.

    Filings have steadily declined since 2006, when 12,066 cases reached the courtroom, according to figures provided by the juvenile court.

    Those juvenile suspects in the courtroom were facing fewer serious charges.

    Felony-level filings last year were down to 1,034 — an 18 percent drop from the number in 2008, and a 28 percent drop from the number in 2000.

    Assaults plummeted from the 10-year high of 95 filings in 2008 to just 45 last year. Robberies, burglaries, and rapes were also down.

    But at least one statistic is likely to go the other way.

    In 2009, 12 juveniles suspected of felonies were certified to stand trial as adults. So far this year, eight suspects younger than 18 have been certified.

    Among those are Anferney Fontenet, 15, certified on rape and aggravated robbery charges after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman as he held scissors to her throat on a West Toledo street on Jan. 19; Rashaad Sultan, 17, to be tried in adult court for the strangulation death of a man in the McClinton Nunn Homes public housing complex Jan. 14; and Terrance Brown, 17, charged with aggravated robbery and attempted murder for the Jan. 15 beating of a taxi driver.

    “That's what seems to be up,” said Lori Olender, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor.

    Nationwide, juvenile arrests have been on the decline for several years. Arrests fell by 3 percent in 2008 from the number in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

    Many states experienced a rise in reports of juvenile crime in the mid-1990s and afterward enacted rules that made it easier to deal in the courtroom with problem behavior, said Melissa Sickmund, a researcher for the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

    What might otherwise have been considered misbehavior in school became a court matter, and some communities enacted a mandatory arrest at domestic violence calls, she said.

    Reacting differently

    “At the same time, for kids, there was a zero-tolerance policy in schools. Whereas schools used to handle fights in the principal's office with detention and expulsion, now they were picking up the phone and calling police,” Ms. Sickmund said. “Now the system is reacting to it differently. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing can be debated.”

    Juvenile felony filings are generally down by 13 percent across Ohio, with 78,482 filings last year, down from 90,509 in 2008, according to a University of Cincinnati analysis.

    There are currently 978 convicted juvenile offenders held in Ohio facilities, which is the lowest juvenile population in lockup in 30 years, said Ed Latessa, director of the University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice.

    He partially credits the improving numbers to RECLAIM Ohio, an initiative to reward courts for reducing the number of juvenile offenders sentenced to imprisonment. With RECLAIM funds for new juvenile programs in Lucas County, Mr. Latessa and his students helped redesign the treatment model for youth at the Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center.

    “It was more of a therapeutic model. Lots of talk,” Mr. Latessa said. “And that just doesn't work. The typical therapeutic approach is to talk about your past, to talk about the things that are troubling you. That kind of therapy. The problem is, you can't change the past, number one, and it doesn't give you skills to stay out of trouble in the future.”

    The detention center staff now uses role-playing so that juveniles can practice how to avoid risky situations and change their misbehavior.

    “We're teaching them to react to situations differently and we're practicing what goes on,” court administrator Mr. Pompa said. “Like, if their friends say, ‘Hey, let's smoke a joint.' It's about what kids can say to get out of it.”

    Although such skills are the focus of treatment for juvenile offenders in lockup, at least a third of the young suspects sent to the juvenile court will learn those skills in alternative programs, Mr. Pompa said.

    Twice-daily meetings

    About 50 students participate in such an alternative program at Leverette Middle School. Known as Coach Coburn and Coach Moss, the behavioral coaches hold group sessions and meet twice a day one-on-one with troubled youths who act out in school.

    Both coaches give students their personal cell numbers and encourage them to call for help after school. The coaches might also stroll the halls and peer in on students to be sure they are working in class, or intervene if a student is challenged to fight. They encourage higher education, and have visited the University of Toledo to connect students with young mentors.

    Rewards, which might include soda, ice cream, pizza, or gift cards, are given to students who meet the goals they set for themselves.

    The program worked for sisters Lavinia Thornton, 14, and Angel Thornton, 13. Both girls had a history of getting into fights, but the coaches helped. Now, they are both making A's and B's in school.

    “It was hard for me. I started out not liking anybody. I changed a lot in the program,” Angel said.

    Connecting with the youngsters is often as simple as listening to their problems, Mr. Coburn said. And, well, being sort of cool doesn't hurt.

    “They like my swagger. Having a little bit of swagger makes it,” Mr. Coburn said. “I can bring my conversation down to their level. I understand their slang and I'll use their slang in conversation and they're like, ‘Whoa.' And that's half the battle. Being able to communicate with them and understand what they're saying when they're not.”

    ‘Like an uncle'

    Jaequen says Mr. Coburn is “like an uncle” and Mr. Moss is “like a brother” who had rough childhoods ‘‘just like we came up hard.” Mr. Moss shares his personal stories of a childhood spent partially in foster care. Mr. Moss came up as a student “coached” by Mr. Coburn through another program — after he said he got into trouble for bringing a gun to school.

    “It changed my life,” Mr. Moss now says of Mr. Coburn's tough love. “I know he's here to love and save lives and now it's my turn to give back.”

    Toledo Public Schools has also softened its policy on juvenile misconduct. The district has created alternative punishments for troublemakers, and thus reported a 15 percent reduction on suspensions from 2008 to 2009. There has been a 38 percent reduction in suspensions over four years, Superintendent John Foley said at a news conference Friday.

    As juvenile crime reports have decreased, the emerging philosophy has school administrators and court officials giving more second chances. “Sometimes it's kids being kids,” Mr. Pompa said. “There's a fine line between misbehavior and misdemeanor offending.”

    Contact Bridget Tharp,or 419-724-6086.