At the end of this month, juveniles will no longer be incarcerated at the Ashtabula County Juvenile Detention Center. Instead, juveniles charged with serious crimes, or deemed to be high-risk, will be held at facilities in nearby states.
The decision, which could free up hundreds of thousands of dollars, comes as the county’s juvenile criminal justice system continues to undergo major changes.
On a blustery Thursday afternoon, the yard behind the juvenile detention center is empty. There’s no clanging of cells or clacking of shackles. Everything is quiet.
Juvenile and Probate Court Judge Albert Camplese said that is by design.
“We want the right intervention at the right time for the right reason and nothing more,” Judge Camplese said.
After spending decades as both a prosecutor and an elected judge, Camplese knows the criminal justice system better than most. Most of his time has been spent dealing with juvenile offenders. How the criminal justice system deals with juveniles has been partially flawed since its inception, he said.
“When the juvenile system was first conceived, there wasn’t a great deal of thought put into it,” Camplese said.
In fiscal year 2011, Ashtabula County ranked in the top five in terms of the number of juveniles the county sent to serve time at state facilities. Per capita, it was neck-and-neck with larger, more populous counties that include major metropolitan areas, like Cleveland and Cincinnati. There were 46 juveniles from Ashtabula County serving time at state correctional facilities that year.
In fiscal year 2016, it was only 4.
Late last year, Ashtabula’s juvenile justice system began to undergo major change. Instead of incarceration, greater emphasis was placed on intervention. The new approach diverts non-violent, low-risk juvenile offenders away from the traditional criminal justice system. Instead, juveniles are admitted and processed through the new resource center established inside the Ashtabula Municipal Building.
The resource center is now the point of entry for juveniles — not the detention center.
“What’s nice is [police officers] stop here. They let us know what has happened. They give us their paperwork and they leave. They are back on the road. They are back to policing and providing security to the community,” Camplese said. “Our resource center then does all of the assessments and makes a determination based on objective tools as to whether or not the child should be… detained for the night or whether it’s something in between. That something in between is what we are really focusing on.”
When juveniles accused of a crime or infraction are brought to the resource center, trained staff then assess and evaluat them. If needed, staff does a mental health evaluation of the juvenile as well. From there, a plan to correct the juvenile’s behavior is crafted. The entire process, on average, takes about four hours.
That same process under the old system would take weeks.
The goal of the program is to rectify bad behavior from juveniles accused of "status" offenses, like drinking or smoking cigarettes underage or truancy. Offenses that could lead to further criminality are handled differently, Camplese said. In the judge's experience, he said sending juveniles to a detention facility for minor offenses often does more harm than good, because juveniles can be exposed to others who have been charged with more serious crimes. Detention facilities can also stigmatize and further marginalize juveniles who are on the edge.
The program appears to be proving successful.
In the more than 180 juvenile cases to be diverted through the new program, only 20% of those juveniles have re-offended. Of those that have re-offended, most are accused of minor offenses, like truancy or probation violations.
“If you rely solely on discipline… incarceration as being your tool, you really essentially are rolling the dice that this is going to turn out well, because the construct within the home might not be present,” Camplese said. “If you think about it, anything short of behavior that is truly harming someone, you are essentially allowing that parent who does have the responsibility to use your tax dollars… to solve [their] parenting problem. Why we should allow those that do have the responsibility to parent by cop?”
Camplese said while some citizens are undoubtedly going to be skeptical of the new approach, he said the current system is flawed, evidenced by the country’s burgeoning prison population. He also stresses that while the new approach will save money, it won’t come at the cost of public safety.
“For the past four to six months, we’ve only averaged 9 [juveniles at the detention center], but now we’re down to two people in the detention facility at any one time. It costs $1.8 million to run,” Camplese said. “I want to stress right off the bat that we’re going to ensure the public is safe.”
Juveniles that are deemed to be high risk, or those who have committed violent offenses, can be housed at detention facilities in Trumbull, Geauga and Lake Counties.
Scott Bombeck, the Trumbull County Family Court Administrator, said the county has yet to sign the contract with Ashtabula, but it looks like something that will be agreed upon. Ashtabula will be paying Trumbull, Lake or Geauga counties a per diem for each juvenile that it houses. Trumbull county is looking somewhere between $50 to $250 per day, per juvenile.
“We are definitely equipped to handle helping a fellow county, as we do not expect to get an influx of juveniles,” Bombeck said. “The numbers are way down.”
As soon as juveniles are no longer being held at the Ashtabula Juvenile Detention Center, the goal is to convert the facility into a larger, more robust resource center. Doing so, however, will depend on available grant money that county officials believe will become available. As the program continues to develop, Camplese said it could impact entire families — not just a single juvenile.
“For those that have younger siblings, because of tier status as the oldest in the family, they are setting the behavior for the entire family,” Camplese said. “It not only allows us to work with that juvenile, but with the whole family.”