Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (2024)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Standing in juvenile court awaiting arraignment last year, 15-year-old Demetrius was unphased. He’d done this routine five times in four years for low-level offenses, and court was starting to feel like a revolving door.

But when the judge listed attempted murder among the eight counts against him, confusion set in. Murder? Of who?

Demetrius didn’t know yet that his best friend had been shot in what the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office is calling a botched robbery but Demetrius claims was an unprovoked ambush. Now, not only was Demetrius learning that his friend had been seriously injured, but Demetrius was the one accused of trying to kill him. The hard exterior he’d been trying to maintain fell away and his nearly 6-foot, 200-pound frame collapsed into sobs.

Five days later, the friend died, and Demetrius’ charge escalated to murder. The prosecutor’s office asked a judge to transfer Demetrius to adult court, a process called bindover.

In discretionary bindover cases, juveniles 14 and older can be sent to the adult docket for any felony allegation. To guide that decision, the judge holds a special hearing to determine whether the youth is “amenable” to care and rehabilitation within the juvenile system – which runs until an offender’s 21st birthday – or whether adult sanctions are necessary to protect public safety.

“I’m not saying I’m an angel; I did a lot of f---ed up s--- I regret, lock me up for that,” Demetrius says nine months later from the Cuyahoga Juvenile Detention Center, where he was awaiting the amenability hearing that would decide his fate. “But this, I didn’t do this.”

Demetrius is one of more than 50 juvenile offenders – referred to by middle name or pseudonym – who spoke to The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com about their recent experiences within the Cuyahoga County juvenile justice system, which puts more children behind bars than any other county in Ohio. Their stories, told over six weeks, illustrate influences that led them to crime, escalations from petty misdemeanors to violent acts and barriers that delayed or blocked their way out, sometimes despite interventions. This is week 4.

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The juvenile justice system was created to treat youths differently from adults by focusing on rehabilitation, rather than just punishment. In the spirit of second chances, Cuyahoga County’s Juvenile Court supports numerous programs to address the underlying causes of juvenile crime and to help youths leave the system with a lower chance of reoffending.

Demetrius tried many of those interventions over the years, following low-level offenses, but his criminal behavior continued. The shooting, however, was the first time he’d been accused of serious violence. The outcome of that case brought any progress he was finally making to a dead stop.

Services

Demetrius’ criminal record began when he was 11. His parents were in prison for drug trafficking and gun possession, so he was living with an aunt, who, he says, was physically and emotionally abusive. They fought often.

“I used to be on punishment so long I’d forget why I was punished,” he says. “So, I just started doing whatever I want.”

Once, when she refused to let him inside the house, he shoved open the door, grabbed his belongings and tried to run away. She called police, who wanted to send Demetrius to a program for unruly youth. But his aunt declined, having him charged with disorderly conduct instead, records show.

In another fight eight months later, Demetrius hit her over the head with a clock and was charged with assault. This time the court offered to put him through Multi-Systemic Therapy, or MST, one of its most intensive services that works with the entire family to improve relationships and behaviors -- but again, the aunt refused. The court tried mentorship and community service instead.

Things didn’t improve until later that year when Demetrius’ mother was released early from prison, and he moved back under her care. He didn’t touch the court again for three years.

But he grew bored and restless during the pandemic. He stopped going to school and started getting into trouble with friends. Once, in 2022, he was caught throwing shopping carts off a roof. Another time he was involved in a disturbance at MetroHealth hospital and refused to leave when asked. In both cases, he was the only one caught and charged.

With each delinquency, the court escalated sanctions, ordering him to stay in detention and two different residential facilities, before sending him to probation. His case was also referred to a specialized docket catering to youth whose behavior might be driven by a mental health condition. Demetrius is diagnosed with ADHD, trauma-stressor disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (1)

The judge on the mental health docket asked the family to again consider MST. Demetrius’ aunt had opposed the therapy program, but his mother was open to it. It was supposed to help correct his behaviors and support her in developing better management strategies. It also works with parents to address their own mental health conditions and traumas.

His mom had many. She lost her father at age 2 and her mother by 14, thrusting her into foster care. At 17, she got pregnant and dropped out of high school. By 22, she found herself alone with three young children. The next year, she says she got married to keep a roof over their heads. Not long after came three more children, including Demetrius. Then her husband was arrested, and she feels she was unfairly sentenced to prison with him.

In that time, her older children stayed with relatives on her side of the family. They went on to graduate high school and are now working or in college. The younger siblings stayed with the dad’s side of the family and have each since faced criminal charges.

“I’ve got two sets of kids,” the mom says. “One set is doing good, and the other is constantly in trouble.”

She hoped MST would get them all on track, especially Demetrius, who by then had three delinquencies and a reputation for impulsive and risk-taking behaviors. It was a rocky start.

Demetrius was skipping school – he had over 351 unexcused absence hours – and failing every class, his probation officer reported. He was also using marijuana. Then he was caught trying to break into a car with his younger brother. He told police he intended to sell it for $75.

Demetrius was always looking for ways to make quick cash. Sometimes he says he would resell bottles of water on the street corner, rake yards or help demo houses. But when business was slow, he’d sell weed and boost cars.

One summer, he saved up $7,000, but says it didn’t last long. Part of it he used to buy a bed, TV and dresser, things he’d never had but felt “should be in a room.” Then he bought new clothes to replace the “raggedy” ones that he says led him to skip school to avoid embarrassment. The rest of the money he gave to his mother so they could avoid eviction.

“That’s why it’s always good to have it,” Demetrius justifies. “Because if I didn’t, we wouldn’t have a house.”

His drive to make money at any cost hindered his progress with MST. He skipped community service and court hearings to pursue work opportunities. His mom was just as problematic, a probation officer said, describing her as inconsistent and difficult to reach. She met program expectations three weeks out of nine.

But by the end, the court was starting to see some progress.

Demetrius applied for a job at McDonald’s. He joined the school’s chess team, earning second place at his first competition, so the court referred him to a chess-focused mentoring program. He was passing his drug screenings and more regularly attending school, his probation officer said.

“The youth reports he thinks he could change and do better for himself,” his probation officer said in an assessment at the time.

Four days later, Demetrius was accused of murder. All services stopped.

Murder

Demetrius didn’t fire the gun that killed his friend. He’s not accused of firing at anyone, but he’s still responsible for his friend’s murder, the prosecutor’s office says. They accuse Demetrius and his friend of plotting a robbery that led to the fatal violence that day.

The pair had discussed robbing the target with other teens on social media. But when those teens backed out, the prosecutor says Demetrius and his friend decided to go through with the plot on their own. Days later, the pair rode a bus to the alleged target’s house in the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood. The man was hosting a cookout and Demetrius, who says he was only going to play videogames, called ahead to say they were on their way.

When they arrived, there was a confrontation at the door.

Demetrius says several people inside the home shoved guns in their faces and ordered them to the ground in retaliation for ever considering the robbery. Evidence presented in court shows one of the other guests had texted a 15-year-old guest the night before telling him to bring a gun and “be ready.”

The alleged target, however, accused Demetrius and his friend of drawing weapons first.

Seconds later, Demetrius’ friend, who had a gun, and the 15-year-old guest simultaneously exchanged fire. The friend was shot in the head; the other teen was hit in the stomach.

Amid the chaos, Demetrius ran and called 911, seeking shelter at a nearby restaurant while directing officers back to the shooting scene. By the time police arrived, one of the witnesses had stashed the 15-year-old’s gun, which was never recovered. The target also later admitted to throwing away a bullet casing.

Demetrius, alone, was charged.

“If I was robbing, I wouldn’t have called 911,” Demetrius defends.

Despite being accused of murder, Demetrius didn’t qualify for mandatory bindover, which would have sent him straight into the adult system, because he wasn’t yet 16 – the minimum age requirement – and had never served time in juvenile prison. But prosecutors requested discretionary transfer, asking a judge to try him as an adult.

That decision hinged on a special hearing, where a judge would weigh the likelihood that Demetrius had planned the robbery that resulted in murder, as well as his potential for rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

The court offers over 100 intervention services to facilitate that rehabilitation through community service, counseling, mentorship, and behavioral therapy. Many of them work to deter future crime by addressing the underlying causes, such as mental health, sexual abuse, physical abuse, drug use, childhood trauma, absentee parenting, educational barriers and extreme poverty.

Those programs have proven successful in diverting more youth away from the system earlier, data provided by the court shows, which has resulted in fewer kids facing some of the harsher sanctions, like residential lockup, jail or juvenile prison. However, about 25% of youth who participate in such services still reoffend and return to court within a year, data show, raising questions about why programs aren’t working in those cases and whether more could have been done.

Demetrius is one of the unsuccessful ones who continued to cycle through the system despite interventions. He can’t answer why, though he argues that nothing could have prevented him from being falsely accused of a murder. However, he suspects poverty might have contributed to his other crimes. It put pressure on him to survive, by any means.

“If I had a job, I wouldn’t be in trouble, I would be making money. I love money,” he says. “I can change. All I need is a job, and I’ll never catch a case again.”

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (2)

The same might be said of his younger brother, DeAndre, who now faces the same struggle. He served as Demetrius’ lookout in the attempted car theft, which thrust him into the justice system for the first time.

Problems compounded when Demetrius was jailed for murder and could no longer supplement the family’s income. Their mother was struggling to find work and they again faced eviction.

DeAndre started shoplifting clothes, some to wear and others to sell for profit, he says. Then his mother says she found stolen computers in his room and turned him in to police, adding more charges to his record. “She keeps it real,” he says now, without resentment.

The court sent him to an 11-week program meant to reframe his thinking about right and wrong. It worked, staff say. He met all the conditions and was successfully graduating. But on his last day, when staff tried to drop him off back at home, they learned his family had been evicted.

Staff couldn’t reach his mother, so they took him to the Jane Edna Hunter Social Services office. He walked out within the hour, eventually reuniting with his mother. But months later the family was still homeless, couch-surfing in separate houses.

DeAndre went to stay with family friends in Mount Pleasant, but he worried his welcome was wearing out. “One more mouth to feed,” he says. He asked his mother for $20 to contribute toward groceries, in hopes the family would let him stay longer.

“I’ll be alright,” he assures.

Not amenable

Earlier that day, DeAndre had walked an hour and a half through a drizzling February rain to attend his brother’s amenability hearing, where a judge would determine whether Demetrius would be tried as an adult. He thought the outcome would be favorable.

Demetrius had the support of his alleged victim’s family, who not only were advocating against his bindover but were calling for all charges to be dropped. They felt the 15-year-old who fired the fatal shot should be held accountable, not Demetrius, and accused police of ignoring evidence in the case.

Court assessments also gave Demetrius a high chance of rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

His psychological evaluation said he was more amenable to reform than 79% of other justice-involved youth in the county. And while his probation officer still noted that Demetrius “needs structure” to be successful, they felt it “would be very beneficial” for him to get a job, participate in a positive activity and meet regularly with a therapist.

“(Demetrius) has been through a lot in his life,” the probation officer wrote, listing off traumas, including his turbulent home life and his best friend dying in front of him.

Demetrius’ assigned public defender, Michael Hustick, stressed those points when urging Judge Kristin Sweeney to deny bindover. It didn’t help that during a recent attempt at home detention Demetrius had been charged with domestic violence following a fight with his sister over cleaning the bathroom. But at 16, there was still five years to work with Demetrius in the juvenile system, Hustick argued, and he was already proving himself capable of reform.

Demetrius had recently received his diploma and enrolled in chef training. His good behavior in detention also earned him “star mentor” status, which allowed him to live in the least-restrictive housing unit, his attorney said.

That had apparently changed by the time of the hearing. Sweeney said her notes showed him recently being moved to a slightly higher security level, though she did not say what caused the move. Even so, Hustick implored, he had shown good behavior deserving of a second chance.

“We should reserve adult sanctions for youth who are the most dangerous and least treatable, and that is not (Demetrius),” Hustick appealed to the judge. “If the goal is to rehabilitate, then the court should deny the motion.”

Sweeney wasn’t persuaded. She granted the bindover, citing Demetrius’ failed attempts at reform in his prior cases and the fact that his hands tested positive for gunshot residue. (Hustick argued that his proximity to the gunfire explained the residue and pointed out that neither city cameras nor home security footage ever showed Demetrius with a gun.)

Sweeney also noted that murder charges, in adult court, carry a 15-year prison sentence, time Demetrius couldn’t serve in the juvenile system, if convicted.

Following the ruling, Demetrius’ mother stormed out of the courtroom in protest. The victim’s family followed – “This justice system sucks, and it’s getting worse every day,” the grandmother remarked.

Demetrius, who maintains his innocence, hopes to beat the charges in adult court. Then, he says, he wants to move away from Cleveland. There’s nothing left for him in the city but memories of the hardships he’s faced and the friends he’s lost to gun violence – 10 total, including his best friend.

If he can get out, he says, maybe then he’d have a chance.

“I know I’m a kid, but I don’t feel like it,” Demetrius says. “Kids don’t see this s---. Kids don’t have their friends die.”

Mariah: Diversion helps youth avoid juvenile record

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (3)

As a Bible school volunteer and statewide representative for her church, Mariah, 17, preaches peace, respect and kindness.

But when a girl jumped her at school in a fight over a boy, Mariah reverted to her mother’s teaching to defend herself, and punched back. The other girl started seizing.

Both were suspended for two days. The other girl also changed schools. Mariah thought the one-off fight was over.

Four months later, she was charged with assault.

Mariah was terrified. It was the first time she – or any of her four siblings – had been in trouble with the law. She worried whether she could be jailed or how a criminal record could impact her aspirations to become a nurse. Mostly, though, she hated what the charge said about her.

“It would have a negative impact on my character,” Mariah says. “I’ve never been known to be mean, so people would look at me different.”

Mariah’s case, however, took a different path.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, which decides whether to allow youth diversion following charges, referred her to the Early Intervention and Diversion Center, or EIDC. The program is for kids accused of low-level, non-violent offenses and little to no court history. The idea is to stop crime at the first sign of misbehavior. If youth successfully complete programming, they’re never charged and the case is sealed, leaving their record clear.

The prosecutor’s office and juvenile court started the voluntary program in 2019 and have referred more than 6,500 youths through 2023. Most faced low-level charges for unruly behavior or misdemeanor crimes, but a third were accused of non-violent felonies, court data shows.

Youths previously had to wait to be adjudicated to start services – a process that could take six months or more. But the EIDC program allows the court to implement them immediately. Each youth is screened for potential behavioral health issues, along with trauma symptoms, substance abuse, depression, or anxiety. Appropriate services are then assigned.

Some youth might be sent to therapy or one of the court’s specialized dockets, where they receive services specific to their needs. Others are sent to traditional diversion programs through the youth’s home community or the city where their offense occurred. The individual programs decide the consequence, typically involving apology letters to victims, community service or counseling.

Bridget Gibbons, juvenile court’s deputy administrator, believes those earlier interventions are already reducing recidivism and will eventually result in lower juvenile crime rates. “We’re trying to catch those kids today, right now,” she says.

So far, the program seems to be having a positive effect. A recent Case Western Reserve study of outcomes between January 2019 and 2021 found that of the roughly 5,100 youth referred to the program by that time, just 7% were charged with a new offense within one year.

Success

In 2023, Mariah was sent to Cleveland’s youth diversion program, one of the county’s most active. She wrote an essay on her dream to become a nurse, volunteered with her church and attended a youth empowerment summit on conflict resolution and self-esteem building. She completed diversion in November and her case was sealed.

“We’re not worried about her,” Charisse Dawson, a licensed social worker and administrative manager for the program, says. “She won’t come back.”

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (4)

Most of Cleveland’s participants don’t retouch the system.

The program does not track recidivism directly, Dawson says, but her manual review of 2023 participants who were charged with new offenses while going through diversion fell below 3%. Most of those charges were misdemeanors, she says. Only two youths had committed high-level felonies.

More often than not, Dawson says, if a youth does not complete diversion – about 24% of their referrals in 2023 – it’s because the program could not reach a parent to approve participation or because the parent declined. Not because a youth reoffended.

Because of that high success rate, Angela Shute-Woodson, Cleveland’s director of community relations, overseeing diversion, wishes it could accept more kids.

A recent study out of the University of California at Irvine found that youth who go through the formal court process have worse outcomes than those who are diverted. They’re more likely to reoffend, become incarcerated and drop out of high school. Increased use of diversion, Shute-Woodson says, helps kids avoid that fate.

“This is still a youth,” she stresses. With the structure diversion offers, “maybe we will prevent them from going down a path they can’t return from.”

Granting that wish, however, requires more funding. Cleveland’s program has just three employees and a budget of $44,700, limiting options. Therapy, for example, is vital to most youth’s rehabilitation, program managers agree, but they can only afford to give youth a session or two, not the ongoing services most need.

“It’s not enough money,” Dawson says.

The city is working with the court to explore options for expanding funding for the program, a spokesman for the mayor’s office says, but nothing has been finalized.

Mariah considers herself lucky. She has a great home life, excels in school and now, thanks to diversion, has a clean juvenile record again. But she can’t help but think about how someone like her touched the system to begin with, and where her life may have gone had her case ended in a delinquency.

She understands, now, how easily poor judgment in a split-second decision can change a life.

If given a do-over, Mariah says she wouldn’t hit back. She warns her friends to “not let things bother you that easily,” too. They may not get a second chance, like she did.

“It wasn’t that serious,” she says now of the altercation that sparked the fistfight. “You can walk away.”

Daniel: MST services could help more youth, but seriously understaffed

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (5)

Daniel’s first time touching the juvenile justice system stemmed from an incident so minor he almost didn’t qualify for one of the court’s most intensive programs, designed to pull youth back from the brink of deeper crime.

But his behaviors had been stacking into a pattern of violence that officials worried could lead to serious charges. So, the court referred him to Multisystemic Therapy, or MST, to head off problems at the suspected source: his home.

The program sends a case worker into the youth’s house and works with the entire family on stabilizing basic needs, setting boundaries, implementing appropriate punishments and restoring relationships. Workers spend a minimum of three hours with families each week and are on call 24/7 to address problems.

When Daniel started the voluntary program in August, the 13-year-old was rebellious and uncontrollable. He was getting into weekly fistfights at school, skipping class, failing subjects, destroying property at home, berating his mother and disappearing for days, program records show. (Daniel and his family declined interviews but agreed to share their MST report.)

Following one fight with his mom, Daniel was charged with disorderly conduct and placed on the court’s mental health docket, which referred him to MST. He had no contact with his father, and his mother was struggling with her own mental health issues that sometimes prevented her from helping her son.

MST could help them both.

When he first started acting out, Daniel’s mother tried various punishments, including grounding him from PlayStation or seeing friends. But his size allowed him to overpower her to get his way.

The caseworker suggested a different approach, using rewards and sanctions the mother could control. If he did his homework, he could play videogames. If he didn’t, she could remove the gaming system while he was away. If he went fight-free at school, he earned cellphone time. If he didn’t, she could suspend service.

To stop him from stealing, Daniel’s mom started awarding him points for each day he behaved. Eventually, he could apply them toward new clothes or shoes.

“Remember, things can get worse before they get better,” their MST caseworker encouraged in records. “…When we change things up and start sticking to our limits, teens tend to challenge them to see if you’ll give in. Stay consistent. Once a teen knows what to expect, it’s easier to comply.”

Juvenile court considers MST one of its most successful programs.

Among the youth who have participated in the last two years, an average 89% successfully completed treatment and 91% avoided being removed from the home, exceeding national program targets, data shows. However, only 81% of youth remained in school at the end of treatment, and 26% faced new charges, which didn’t meet targets.

There was improvement between the two years, though. Where more than half of participants reoffended the first half of 2022, only one did by the end of 2023.

Cuyahoga County, though, has an unusually small pool of participants.

“There’s no shortage of referrals that the court could make for kids who would benefit from MST, but the slots are so limited,” MST Manager Elizabeth Cipollone says.

There are currently two MST therapists who together can serve a maximum of 20 youths a year. But the court has the budget to support up to eight therapists, who could serve 80 kids.

In March, the court increased the starting salary to $63,000 to attract more applicants, but officials worry the long hours and difficult work may still turn people off.

Daniel’s charge came at a time when MST had an opening. After four months of services, he was consistently attending school and turning in homework. His grades were improving. He was taking his medicine. He was behaving at home.

There was a blip near the end of his time in the program where he was involved in a fight and suspended from school for three days, but MST staff said his mother did “a great job of handling it.” She enforced his punishment – no phone during the suspension – and talked through nonviolent ways he could have responded.

That proved the family’s growth, says Pam Mitterling, an MST expert with Case Western University’s Center for Innovative Practices, who ensures the program adheres to the national model. She reviews each case and, during a phone conversation with Daniel’s therapist in December, didn’t consider his school fight cause for concern.

“It’s not so much that the kids are going to be perfect,” she tells his therapist, “It’s that the parents know how to handle it.”

Daniel hasn’t reoffended since.

Bryson: CBIC transformative intervention, but not always enough

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (6)

Bryson can’t name a single positive male role model in his life.

He’s not in contact with his father and his older brother is serving 10 years in prison for drug trafficking, making Bryson the man of the house at 17.

His mother, a single parent, provides for his basic needs, he says, but little more. To fill in the gaps, he started selling drugs. In the past, his brother could make $1,000 in just a couple of hours, he recalls. But after his brother was arrested, Bryson got spooked and switched to stealing cars.

In 11 months, he was charged six times with receiving stolen property, a felony, related to the car thefts.

“I hear more people saying they get money off the street rather than a job. So, I want to get the same money they’re getting,” Bryson admits. “I adapted to that.”

The juvenile justice system is designed to promote rehabilitation and give wayward youth a fighting shot at avoiding an adult criminal record. One of the last stops for a kid before juvenile prison or a transfer to the adult system is often the Community Based Intervention Center, an intensive education- and therapy-based program. It boasts remarkable youth transformations that staff say prove rehabilitation is possible.

The program isn’t always enough to overcome a child’s troubled home life and circ*mstances. But for Bryson, it was exactly the intervention he needed.

Poverty

Bryson’s search for financial security is common among justice-involved youth.

One of his peers, Aaron, says he also “fell in love with that fast money.” He didn’t have any at home.

Aaron grew up idolizing his father, but rarely saw him. When he was 13, he falsely accused his mother of abuse, thinking the court would send him to live with his dad, permanently. He “expressed jealousy and some resentment” that his half-siblings got to visit their father, a probation officer wrote.

Three weeks later, while staying with his father, Aaron says he watched federal authorities kick in the front door and arrest his dad for gun and drug trafficking. His dad is now serving 10 years in prison.

Things were rocky back at home with his mom. Aaron started running away, stealing cars for “transportation and a place to sleep,” his probation officer reported. Then he turned to older males on the block, who, he now says, promised a “glamorous” lifestyle of weed, money and women.

Last year, the 17-year-old was caught boosting dozens of cars off a rental lot. A police report said he did it under threat from an older man.

Aaron understands what he did was wrong but says it was what he was taught. All youth see in his eastside Cleveland community is crime, he criticizes, yet society “gets mad when we do it.”

Following charges and stays in jail, Aaron and Bryson were sent to the Community Based Intervention Center, a rehabilitation program for males 14 and older considered high risk for reoffending.

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (7)

During the 3-month program, kids are picked up at home and shuttled to the Metzenbaum Center in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood for 10 hours. Half that time they receive individualized education, catching them up in school. The other half is spent in group therapy, where they learn social and problem-solving skills meant to alter the impulsive thoughts and risky behaviors that led them to crime.

When Bryson started the program last September, he paced with nervous energy, unable to sit or focus. He often had to be separated to avoid disrupting others and wasn’t completing assignments. Fast forward two months, he was relaxing in his seat, working silently and sharing during group therapy.

“He’s come so far,” program manager Patricia Grace remarks. “He’s like a different kid.”

Aaron, too, improved over the same period. He’d recently surprised himself by restraining and calming two brawling teens and helping an injured staff member. Before CBIC, he says he would have let them fight. Staff rewarded him with McDonald’s and a $30 gift card.

“It’s one thing to tell us what they think we want to hear, but another to break up a fight of your peers and demonstrate the skills we’ve been learning,” staffer Sean Lavelle says.

The transformations are proof programs like CBIC can work to rehabilitate and divert troublesome youth, Grace says, even as they’ve had to cut hours amid understaffing.

‘I still got hope’

There were 260 youths who attended CBIC between 2019 and 2023. Most of them completed the program and are considered a success.

The court does not track recidivism in the traditional sense, because it’s expected to take time for the philosophies to sink in and sometimes charges are added late as evidence evolves. Instead, the court bases success on whether participants were sent to residential facilities or state lockups after completing services, indicating they were not yet fully rehabilitated. Over the four years, though, 80% of participants did not cycle deeper, data show. (It’s too early to factor in 2023 participant outcomes.)

“Intervention decisions can’t be based on just one thing: the crime,” Grace defends. “If you’re not addressing the right thing and just locking them up, it’s not going to be beneficial.”

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (8)

At CBIC, facilitators roleplay scenarios to help youth think through consequences of risky behaviors and possible alternatives. In November, one of the hypothetical scenarios was actually a lived reality for most of the group: what to do if they are kicked out of the house.

Seated in front of a whiteboard, Bryson, Aaron and a few others wrote out their options. They could steal a car or find an abandoned house to sleep in. They might also go to a homeless shelter or crash at a friend’s place. One suggested they might call police for help.

Some of those options would be criminal, but it’s OK for such thoughts to pop into mind, staff tell the kids, as long as they don’t act on them. Following discussion, the teens decide staying with a friend or family member is best. They repeated the exercise several times.

“It’s too repetitive,” one kid complains. “It’s repetitive, so we don’t forget it,” Aaron replies.

Just before Aaron left the program, that training was put to the test.

Freed from his ankle bracelet, he celebrated with friends and came home high. His mother kicked him out and withheld clothes and belongings. He went to the county men’s shelter, which provides housing for homeless youth, but he regressed – acting out, leaving without permission. After a few weeks, he went to live with his grandmother but was soon back at the shelter.

Grace says the situation exemplifies the challenges many youths face on their rehabilitation journeys. Rarely is the path straight or easy, and even kids who do well in court services can struggle again once they return home.

Another kid from the November class fought with his caretaker, cut his ankle monitor and has been missing since. A third was kicked out of the house after he suffered a dog bite that went untreated and the family was reported to social services. He is living in a hotel.

“The challenges of their environment play a huge role” in rehabilitation, Grace says. “We’re trying to give them the skills here to overcome some of them, but their living situations are out of their control.”

Bryson is one of the few kids from the November class who hasn’t regressed.

His mom moved the family across town for a better-paying job and put Bryson in boxing lessons to introduce him to positive role models. He’s looking for part-time work while he finishes school, then he plans to drive a truck.

As of May, he was doing well and hadn’t reoffended.

Months earlier, he predicted he’d still be on the streets, “doing the same things,” if he hadn’t been sent to CBIC. It was his wake-up call. Stealing cars and making money “any type of way” didn’t give him the life he wanted, he says. He had to change.

“I used to always have the urge to do something, but now I think I don’t want to go back to jail,” Bryson says. “I still got hope.”

Carter: Alternatives to traditional juvenile lockup seeing success

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (9)

Four years ago, Carter was on a fast track to prison or death.

He was failing in school and missing curfew. He stole money from siblings. He’d sneak out for days, running with the Heartless Felons gang.

At 15, he served as an armed guard outside an apartment door, while his crew dumped a man from his wheelchair and stole the TVs from the apartment. Before fleeing, Carter fired his gun, lodging a bullet in the front door. He later turned himself in, telling police the others made him do it. He was charged with 10 felonies, including aggravated robbery.

Then, at 16, Carter led police on a high-speed chase reaching 110 mph in a stolen car. He and two passengers were arrested; police confiscated three loaded firearms. Police later found his fingerprints in a different stolen vehicle – “All I knew was wake up, steal a car and go,” he admits.

“I was just living wild. I didn’t care,” Carter says. “When you go outside, all you see is violence. All you see is people smoking and hear about shootings, and that’s what (kids) go and do.”

Sometimes kids cycle through the system, despite interventions, reoffend and are labeled unredeemable. They get sent on to the adult system to face adult consequences, including adult prison. But some kids defy the odds and the expectations of prosecutors.

Carter was one of those kids. Rather than serving time in a traditional cell, he was transferred to a therapy-focused alternative, where he excelled. His story shows us that some interventions are worth the public’s investment; some kids are worth a second chance.

After the police chase, Carter spent 15 days in jail and two months on house arrest while the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor pursued bindover – transfer to adult court. Carter’s charges didn’t qualify for mandatory bindover, but prosecutors felt he should be tried as an adult, and they requested discretionary transfer.

Discretionary bindovers can be requested anytime a juvenile is 14 or older and accused of a felony. But it’s up to a judge to decide whether transfer is appropriate, following an investigation into the child’s social history, education and family situation, as well as a mental health examination by the court’s diagnostic clinic. Judges hold a special hearing to determine if a child is “amenable” to care and rehabilitation within the juvenile system – which runs until an offender’s 21st birthday.

Carter’s judge found him amenable, noting that he didn’t have a long criminal history and hadn’t yet received services. The judge sentenced him to juvenile prison for a minimum of four years, or up until he turned 21.

Carter’s mother initially resented the sentence, fearing it might spark a vicious cycle of incarceration. His father had been in and out of jail most of his life. Yet, a part of her was also relieved. For the first time in so long, she knew where her son was sleeping at night.

“Before then, I didn’t know where (he) was or if I’d get a phone call telling me he died,” she says. “I went from worrying every night about if my son would get in trouble and would no longer be here, to, ‘Ok, I know where he is, and now that I know where he is, can I get him some help?’”

Help

Unlike many youths who touch the criminal justice system, Carter had a relatively stable upbringing. His mother had a master’s degree and a good-paying job. He also had model siblings and a supportive extended family.

But he still seemed to lack a sense of belonging, after his parents divorced when he was 3. He lost touch with his father over time, and the absence seemed to bother him more than it did his older siblings, his mom says.

Carter started gravitating to older men from their Euclid neighborhood. Bad behavior followed. But his eventual arrest and incarceration “changed the trajectory of his life,” his mother now praises.

Cuyahoga’s six juvenile judges have drastically reduced the number of youths they send to Ohio Department of Youth Services facilities. In 2009, they ordered 293 kids to youth prison, data show, but commitments fell to a record low – 54 – amid the pandemic, in 2020, the same year Carter was sent there. (Commitments have since increased into the 70s, where they remain steady.)

Typically, juveniles sentenced to the ODYS serve time at one of the state’s three primary prisons –Cuyahoga Hills, Indian River or Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility – all of which have come under greater scrutiny in the past year for riots and problems that many say traumatize youth.

“Indian River is not treatment, it’s just fighting,” Carter recalls of his brief time there.

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (10)

Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (11)

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Not long into his sentence, though, Carter’s judge allowed him to transfer to one of ODYS’ three community-based alternatives, which put greater focus on treatment rather than incarceration. Collectively, about 15% of youth committed to ODYS reside at one of the alternative facilities.

Carter went to Lighthouse Youth Center at Paint Creek, a residential treatment facility near Chillicothe.

The minimum nine-month program works to break through traumas to help youth develop coping and self-regulation skills. It also mandates therapy and education. Older youth are exposed to job training.

It’s meant to be a supportive environment. There are no locked doors, and youth have their own rooms. They also wear regular clothes, rather than uniforms.

“It’s not about compliance, it’s about teaching,” Director Renee Hagan says during a recent visit. “It can’t just be punishment.”

Originally, Lighthouse offered correctional-style discipline for males ages 14 to 20. But in 2021, it switched its focus to “Trust Based Relational Intervention,” using relationship-building and therapy to encourage reform. Since then, it has had greater success rehabilitating youth, Hagan says.

Fights also plummeted. Where Lighthouse used to report about 100 altercations a year, in 2022, it had just 16, Hagan says. Staff were able to convert what used to be “seclusion rooms” into recreational spaces. Recidivism also cut in half, she said; in 2022, just 10% of participants reoffended within a year of exiting the program.

Recidivism in general has been falling across all ODYS facilities since at least 2017, data kept by the state shows. But rates still aren’t as low as at Lighthouse. A recent study provided by the state found that roughly 14% of juveniles released from ODYS in fiscal year 2019 committed new crimes within one year, which was still the lowest percentage since at least 2011. After two years, the rate jumps to 22%. Three-year post-release data was not available for the 2019 group, but rates in prior years have been as high as 49%. For those released in fiscal year 2018, however, the rate had fallen to 35%.

Lighthouse is “not a magic wand,” Hagan cautions. They only accept the best-behaved youth, which may account for their greater success. Still, the program proves “you can do good things with kids without incarceration,” she says.

Changed

Carter witnessed the shift in philosophies. It helped him thrive.

At first, he was disobedient and argumentative. Staff say he gravitated to other disruptive youth and resisted therapy. Hagan nicknamed him “Mr. Sassy.”

Back then, Carter says he felt hopeless and trapped. Nothing is going to change; these people can’t help you, he thought. Staff made him go to therapy anyway. It saved his life, he says.

He stopped fighting, called home more and connected with staff. When former gang friends arrived, he avoided them. “That’s when I knew I started to change,” he says. “Once I started changing, then everything changed.”

He graduated high school at the facility, started college courses and got a job at a local sawmill. He was the first youth to ever be permitted to work offsite, affording him greater job experience and an income to grow his bank account in preparation for release. He went from rebel to role model, staff say.

Carter’s progress earned him release a year early. He’s among 22% of Cuyahoga youth whose sentences were cut short – ranging from a week to a year – between 2019 and 2022, state data show.

Today, Carter is 20 years old and back at home with his mom. She now describes him as respectful and hardworking.

“When we were in the courts three years ago, prosecutors talked about him like he was the scum of the earth. That really upset me because look at him now,” his mom says. “He’s living proof that rehabilitation does work.”

Carter has since started a job with Amazon, earning $19 an hour. He’s getting his driver’s license and looking into trade school. He repaid his siblings the money he’d stolen, exhibiting Lighthouse’s motto, “you gotta make it right.”

He’s crime free.

Carter gives credit to Lighthouse. Had he served time in traditional lockup, or had he been subject to bindover and sent to adult prison, he surmises, his life might look very different. He’s not wasting his second chance.

“The charges I had, they expected me to come back, but I didn’t,” Carter says, four months post-release. “That proves people can change if they want to.”

(Coming next week: The reasons Cuyahoga County youth touch – and sometimes cycle through – the juvenile justice system are nuanced and often reflect underlying and untreated causes related to poverty, trauma, mental illness and hopelessness. But that doesn’t excuse their crimes or minimize the harm they caused their victims. Justice is a balancing act between public safety and rehabilitating youth – and victims don’t always think it weighs in their favor.)

Thank you for reading Delinquent: Our System, Our Kids. Please consider supporting journalism like this by joining our community of subscribers. With a paid subscription, you gain access to everything published by a team of journalists committed to providing accurate information on news, entertainment and sports in Northeast Ohio. Please subscribe here. -- Chris Quinn, Editor

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Delinquent: Read all the stories from Week 4; Cuyahoga’s juvenile court has programs to rehabilitate youth offenders, some are transformative (2024)

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