Officials: Juvenile reforms will balance public safety with dignity of teens

The reforms were announced nearly three months after a Jan. 8 riot at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center

By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County's head juvenile court judge on Wednesday announced a series of reforms to transform how the county deals with children accused of crimes.

The most ambitious reform is the creation of a Community Intervention Center to match children who come in contact with the criminal justice system to critical services such as mental health evaluations, healthcare and trauma counseling. It will also seek to keep low-level offenders out of jail, Administrative Judge Kristin Sweeney announced during a news conference at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Justice Center.

The intervention center will be modeled after a similar program in Dayton and will be funded with grant money, Sweeney said.

The reforms were announced nearly three months after a Jan. 8 riot at the detention center brought a sense of urgency to behind-the-scenes discussions to reform Cuyahoga County's juvenile justice system. They seek to uphold public safety while considering issues surrounding young offenders who have easy access to firearms, underfunded mental health systems, a lack economic and educational opportunity, absent parents and racism, Sweeney said.

"The juvenile justice system can magnify these struggles and inflict tremendous harm in its own right if we aren't careful," she said. "We can help, and we can harm."

Additional reforms include the hiring of more guards at the detention center and a partnership with Cuyahoga Community College to train all guards in de-escalation tactics, Sweeney said.

The court is also conducting a national search for a new detention center administrator to change the culture in the facility, she said.

The reforms announced Wednesday represent a measured approach compared to some initial calls for change in the wake of the January incident at the detention center, which Sweeney and other juvenile court officials have refused to label a "riot." 

Some county officials, Councilman Mike Gallagher and Prosecutor Michael O'Malley, floated the possibility of having the county sheriff's department, which runs the downtown jail that houses adult offenders, take over operations of the juvenile detention center.

That idea was met with resistance from experts in juvenile justice circles, including the ACLU of Ohio's Mike Brickner and Erin Davies from the Columbus-based Juvenile Justice Coalition.

Brickner and Davies attended Wednesday's news conference and said they are pleased with the reforms. They are working with Sweeney to bring in Mark Soler, the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, to evaluate the facility, after the sheriff's department conducted its own evaluation.

Brickner said he is glad the reforms announced Wednesday are more than heavy-handed measures in response to hysteria over the January unrest. The changes actually focus on some of the systemic issues that experts say drive juvenile crime, Brickner said.

Sweeney said during Wednesday's news conference that several detention center guards who were on duty during the Jan. 8 riot have been disciplined for failure to respond. The court later corrected that statement and said, while an investigation into the guards' conduct that night is underway, there has been no discipline doled out.

Six teens used tables and other broken pieces of furniture to cause more than $100,000 in damage to a housing pod during the riot, officials said. They smashed security glass, a window, cell doors, sprinklers, parts of the ceiling, showers, toilets, light fixtures, and a television, officials said.

The teens are facing criminal charges in the incident.

O'Malley said it appeared to be an organized riot that started with one inmate giving a signal to others. Three inmates smashed a window and tried to jump out on to East 93rd Street, but were unable to get out, O'Malley said.

©2018 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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