Transformative move away from incarcerating youth requires fully funded, accountable alternatives
Posted January 28, 2021 in Press Releases
The coronavirus has spread rapidly in Ohio’s correctional facilities, including youth prisons. As of this month, there were 119 positive cases in Ohio’s three youth prisons, which are all under quarantine. A total of 144 staff had tested positive and one had died. The COVID-19 pandemic adds new urgency to the need for Ohio lawmakers to further embrace alternatives to incarceration for young people.
For nearly three decades, Ohio has been moving in the right direction, but the youth prison system continues to take a disproportionate toll on Black Ohioans, who make up 15% of the state’s youth population, but 63% of youth who are incarcerated. Policy Matters Ohio is releasing a roadmap for policymakers to further reduce youth incarceration by fully funding proven strategies for rehabilitating young people who have been convicted of a serious crime. Meanwhile, they can address the root causes by funding programs that make sure every Ohioan can lead a happy, healthy life, no matter what they look like, how much money they make or where they live.
“Children and young adults are in a critical developmental phase that shapes the rest of their lives,” said Policy Matters researcher Piet van Lier. “A young person convicted of a crime has probably been through at least one traumatic experience and likely has a mental health issue. That’s why it’s important to help young people get back on track, not just punish them.”
By 2019, the number of incarcerated Ohio youth had dropped by 55% since the early 1990s, due to prison closures, funding of alternatives, and external factors such as a reduction in juvenile crime. Alternative programs also serve disproportionately lower percentages of Black youth. While youth are often better served outside a prison and closer to their communities, challenges persist in alternative settings. They often operate outside public accountability structures and with inadequate funding. A key component of reducing reliance on youth prisons requires state lawmakers to provide stronger support for families and communities that can prevent youth from entering the criminal legal system in the first place.
Ohio policymakers still spend $200,000 per incarcerated youth each year, dwarfing the cost of programs that serve young people closer to home. The numbers dropped more in 2020, but the pandemic-related disruption of the pipeline of youth into the Department of Youth Services system and community correction facilities likely contributed significantly to these decreases.
“For what state policymakers spend on incarcerating young people, they could send each young person to the Ohio State University for eight years,” van Lier said. “Imagine how much stronger and more prosperous our state would be if we shifted our priorities from punishment to proven strategies for rehabilitation and community support.”