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Ohio DYS Seeks New Ways to Help Young Offenders Stay out of Jail

Federal studies show 30 percent of young people released from incarceration will be back behind bars within one year. 50 percent will be back in a youth or adult facility within three years.

The Ohio Department of Youth Services is in a new push to develop programs and find volunteers to help reduce the recidivism rate. WOSU talked with corrections officials and young offenders to find out what can be done to improve the odds for a young person leaving jail.

20-year-old Stephanie likes to draw, write poetry and read non-fiction. She has spent six and a half months at the department of youth services Freedom Center in Delaware for possession of crack cocaine. She says she is afraid to leave.

"I'm scared cause I've never done the right thing. I always relapse. It's my fifth time here. My drug of choice is crack. I've been on crack for six years. I'm scared to leave, but I have to go, it's my time to go. There's not much else they can teach me that I haven't already been taught."

The Freedom Center is a residential treatment facility for girls and young women with substance abuse problems. More than 70 percent of the young people incarcerated in DYS facilities have what is described as a "severe" drug problem.

Stephanie explains that she started using drugs when she was 14 years old. After her parents divorced, she felt that she had no friends. She says the drug crowd was willing to accept her, and she was willing to do anything to fit in.

Director of the Criminal Justice Division at the University of Cincinnati Ed Latessa says, hanging around with the wrong crowd is a major factor in delinquent conduct.

"We work with these young people to teach them how to maintain relationships without getting into trouble, how to resist peer pressure effectively, and we do that thru a direct approach and through practice, rehearsal and skill building."

Latessa says skill building and other interactive approaches are more effective than trying to scare young people or using emotional appeals. Latessa points to a study he worked on that shows low and moderate risk youth do better in a community program.

Higher risk young people respond best to institutional programs. DYS Director Tom Stickrath says young people come into the system with years of hurt. They are tough kids, he says, and punishment alone doesn't work.

"Some people might say, are you coddling these kids by giving them programs and education. Well, these kids are going to be back in our communities, and we don't want them re-offending. We don't want more victims. We need to turn their lives around because that's what's going to get them to lead a crime-free life."

Helping kids turn their lives around is what Mark Jackson tries to do. He challenges seven young men in a class at the Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility to think hard about making the transition from prison to the community.

"Should you go back home to the same situation that you left, how do you not do the same thing that gets you the same result?"

Jackson engages the young men in a class-wide conversation - talking and listening, using "please" and "thank you" in a demonstration of social skills. No yelling and no intimidation. Next, they write in their journals and snack on candy. The atmosphere is relaxed.

These techniques are part of a re-entry program he is developing through Alvis House, a non-profit agency that works with juveniles and adults involved with the justice system.

"If they don't have wrap around services and programs and other things in the community that make them feel like they're accepted and supported, they're going to find that crutch someplace," warns Jackson.

Some young offenders want to avoid repeating mistakes by going from jail to a college campus. One young man in the Marion facility says, "The whole point of me livin' on campus is I can be away from everything like I came from."

More on that in the second report.