Statewide nonprofit puts youth incarceration under the microscope

Joel Oliphint
Youth protesters at the Statehouse

Last month, the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit released a report on the cost of youth incarceration across the country. According to the findings, Ohio spends $185,303 annually to incarcerate one young person. In comparison, the state spends $12,102 annually to educate a young person, according to data from the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Ohio, a statewide nonprofit.

“We clearly prioritize punishment over preventative, upstream support and investment for young people who have been divested from,” said Kenza Kamal, policy director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Ohio (JJC). “The fact that we could spend the cost of an entire four-year college degree on locking up a child, but we spend $12,000 on educating the child every year — I think those are really clear markers of where our priorities are as a state.”

Still, it’s not all bad news in Ohio according to the JJC, which works with young people involved in the juvenile court system (as well as those at risk of becoming involved). “Ohio has actually done a really good job over the past two decades with our juvenile system [as far as] decarcerating. And even over the course of the pandemic, there have been reductions in the pretrial detention population for young people,” Kamal said. “However, even as we are reducing how many kids are in the system, and even as we are releasing kids due to a deadly virus, the racial disparities are not going away. It's white kids that are disproportionately benefiting from release policies and Black kids that are staying locked up with punitive measures.”

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While youth incarceration has not been a rallying cry during recent Black Lives Matter protests, Kamal said the issue is inextricably linked to the calls for racial justice. “It’s not simply about taking money out of a punishment system and putting it into a community program. It's also about the rest of the systems that shape why kids are locked up,” Kamal said. “Kids are not islands. They have families. They live in neighborhoods. They have communities. … It's about the way that the city they live in was planned. It's about the way that schools were run. It's about the access to stable housing.”

Recently, the COVID crisis has exacerbated some of the existing problems in detention facilities, though the extent of the issues is largely unknown. Just like the adult system in Ohio, juveniles can be confined in jails, which are run by localities, and prisons, which are run by the state.

“All 88 counties in Ohio do their own thing in terms of youth jails, so there is no collective data. … We don't actually know what's happening to kids in a lot of juvenile jails,” Kamal said. “We do know there has been an increase in the use of solitary confinement. But they are not calling it solitary confinement. They're calling it 'medical isolation.' The problem with that is that isolation in these facilities, in any form, is extremely damaging and traumatic to the psychological and neurological well-being of kids. … We are going to see the mental impact on these kids for years and years to come.”