Redefining Justice for Juveniles

On August 21, 2019 Torchbearers initiated new program options for members beyond their first year. Returning members dive deep into a subject that affects Akron leaders. For the 4th installation, members learned about the Summit County Juvenile Court (SCJC) system. Lisa-DiSabato-Moore provided an exceptional presentation on managing community perception and organization reform. Many members shifted their perspective on the possibilities of juvenile justice in our community.

Jail. Typical words associated with the jail may include dirty, dingy, and depressing. A system meant to punish criminals through every step of their experience. If one were to throw juvenile jail in the mix, you may recall ideas surrounding a place to “scare them straight.” This was the first major point, Lisa, drove home. Jail is not the strongest option in the parenting toolbox. “Our kids our sick”, noted Lisa, over “80% of inmates has survived some form of trauma.”  Yet jail as a scare tactic is still a lingering mindset in our community. The SCJC main project is to lead alternative measures to rehabilitate our youth.  The first priority is to shift community perception through open and active communication. Now when parents ask to jail their kid, they are redirected to the family resource center.

Re-framing community perception is a critical, yet success hinges on data and results. As an organization, SCJC had to assess and accept the truth the system was doing more harm than good. There was a strong need for reform. In 2009, they rolled up their sleeves and made an honest commitment to reform the system. In ten years, the number of delinquency cases dropped from 4,300 to 1,600, a reduction of 63%. “That’s how we know what we are doing is working,” Lisa` chimed, “because the village isn’t burning.” She also showed staggering drops in the number of fillings, felony adjudications, detention admissions, and probation cases. More important, the number of kids sent to prison dropped by almost 85%. While sometimes it is a necessary of act of law, the SCJC team knows that if you send a child to the Department of Youth Services for prison they are more likely to end up in adult prison.

Driving that change over time was not easy. Reform requires accountability and a commitment to advocating for youth. They had to overcome popular public opinion that these changes were “letting kids get away with murder.” They weren’t. Instead, they seek to put in place alternatives that recognize the need for trauma-informed care. The team joined Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative through the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This initiative is a process in which each arrestee is assessed as an individual. This premise is to avoid imprisoning youth before their trial, which reduced recidivism. Initiatives like this, a sensory space in the detention center, murals and other art initiatives all made SCJC a leader in the nation.