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Franklin County Sees Positive Results From Juvenile Diversion Program

Franklin County Courthouse
Adora Namigadde
Franklin County Courthouse

Caseworkers in 12 counties around Ohio are trying to confront a persistent problem: Data shows a majority of kids who wind up in the justice system face higher rates of mental health and substance abuse problems, but  have less access to treatment or counseling. 

In those counties, the juvenile justice system has developed a kind of off-ramp for kids who need help rather than punishment. Franklin County’s lead juvenile Judge Elizabeth Gill explains their thinking.

“We should look at a youth and his family’s involvement with the juvenile court as an opportunity to change a child’s trajectory in life and focus on their strengths and provide them with the needed supports,” Gill says.

This week, researchers are sharing data on the long-running program that uses counseling and other mental health interventions instead of detention for kids who get involved in the justice system. The effort has shown positive results by aiming for the root causes of juvenile crime.

The funding for these Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice programs comes from a mix of state and federal dollars, with counties designing their own programs.

In Franklin County, caseworkers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital have offices at the courthouse to assess offenders’ treatment needs immediately. The county has been participating since the initiative’s inception in 2006, and Jeff Kretschmar of Case Western Reserve University assesses the programs every other year.

“You should be really proud of the outcomes that you’re getting,” Kretschmar says. “The work that you’re doing and putting in with these families is effective, doing what it’s supposed to do, and even the kids that don’t go through to the end are still showing some improvements.”

Kretschmar’s report looks at how kids were doing before and after participation, and the presentation he shared this week focuses on the last four years. The data shows kids arriving with mood or behavioral disorders like ADHD and depression, often alongside substance abuse. While about two-thirds of paraticipants complete their program, Black youth lag somewhat behind their white peers, with only about 60% finishing.

Kretschmar says there were notable improvements in school.

“You had really, really good outcomes there,” he says. “You had sort of a two-thirds reduction, 68% reduction, in suspensions, expulsions while these kids were in BHJJ treatment.”

Attendance also increased or held steady for the vast majority of kids, and average grades improved, too. Kretschmar notes even for kids who didn’t complete the program, grades went up—just not as much.

There’s a similar halo effect when it comes to recidivism. Kretschmar compares the average number of misdemeanors, felonies and adjudications committed before the program and those committed the year after. For kids who finished treatment, those numbers dropped across the board.

For those who didn’t, misdemeanor charges held steady, but more serious offenses, declined

“So even for those unsuccessful kids, we’re seeing reductions in a lot of the charges—particularly in felonies and adjudications," Kretschmar says.

Tysherly Green’s son recently completed the program.

“Before he would be disrespectful, and talk trash to me, and he would be on house arrest, he would leave, he wouldn’t care. He would just be so disrespectful,” Green says. “Then he started going through that program and I started noticing he started saying, 'Yes ma’am,' he started staying home, he started listening.”

WOSU isn’t sharing the name of Green’s son. He got involved in the program because he had a firearm, which authorities saw him with in photos online. As part of the program, Green says a counselor from Buckeye Ranch started visiting their home a few times a week.

“I noticed he started maturing, and he wasn’t so ready to go outside so much and do crazy stuff,” Green describes. “I noticed that he tried to control his anger, by him going through this program I noticed how he was trying to control his self.”

Green says her son’s behavior rubbed off on her other children. As his behavior improved, so did the rest of her kids.

Another mother, who didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, explained her son wound up in the program after a series of escalating threats and counter-threats online.  She says the program saved her family, and described how their caseworker took time to fully understand what led to the conflict. 

In addition to behavioral outcomes, there’s also the issue of dollars and cents. Kretschmar explains counseling is far cheaper than youth detention.

“Roughly it’s between $5,000-10,000 to serve a kid in BHJJ,” Kretschmar explains. “The cost to send a kid to DYS is much more expensive than that.  I’m going to say approximately, but it’s approximately $200,000.”

In the last four years, 113 kids have gone through Franklin County’s BHJJ program. Only three later wound up in detention.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.