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These Approaches Help Young Fathers Leaving the Criminal Justice System

Becoming a father for the first time can be difficult for anyone, but when you do so in your teens or early 20s and have been incarcerated, it can be overwhelming. The right supports — stable housing, reliable networks, ties to employment, knowing how to build skills in fatherhood and healthy relationships — are essential.

This was certainly true for 22-year-old James* and 20-year-old Marcus*. Both became fathers before their incarceration; both wanted to be the best dads they could be, and both needed help upon release to do so.

After being released from prison, James joined the T.O.R.I. Program, which offered family reunification classes and employment support. During the 12-month program he learned new skills to provide for and nurture his daughter, like how to appropriately resolve conflict and effectively co-parent.

Marcus enrolled in the RIDGE Project while in prison, which offered training to help build character, leadership and job preparedness skills. Upon release, he continued to work with his caseworker to complete job applications and prepare for interviews. Within weeks, he found a job and an apartment.  

T.O.R.I and RIDGE are both faith-based reentry programs funded by federal, state, local and private funds. Each helps young fathers build their parenting and relationships skills, find employment and change the course of their lives. T.O.R.I. was founded in Texas in 2005 to provide holistic wraparound services for men and women after incarceration. Since its inception, T.O.R.I. has provided assistance in getting housing, employment, education and health care, among other services, to more than 10,000 fathers and mothers.

The RIDGE Project, with offices throughout Ohio, was co-founded by Ron Tijerina following his own experience as an incarcerated father. RIDGE provides classes on fatherhood, leadership, healthy relationships and job preparedness inside prisons. It also provide referrals for housing, mental health and addiction recovery upon release. RIDGE has served more than 14,000 individuals since its inception in 2000.

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded 103 fatherhood grants, nine of which have focused on reentering fathers. Additionally, since 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice has funded 16 fatherhood/reentry grants. These investments come at a time where more than 5 million children (7 percent of all children under 18) live with a parent who went to jail or prison. And about 92 percent of all incarcerated parents are fathers; some estimate that as many as 30 percent of incarcerated teen males are also fathers.  

As many state and federal programs continue to strategically invest in employment and parenting supports for returning young fathers, promising approaches have begun to emerge. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse has developed resources for human service professionals who support fathers and families, including those impacted by incarceration. Their Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit, which includes modules on working with incarcerated and returning fathers, suggests that service providers:

  • Offer pre-release assistance with child support, education and job training to prepare dads for reentry.
  • Encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis, create books or art for their children, and read a book to their child, either over the phone or via audio or video recording.
  • Show fathers the value in developing a working relationship with their child’s mother and provide them with skills to improve this relationship.
  • Connect with the mother and family before a father’s release.
  • Provide relationship skills classes for couples when possible, and link fathers to community services upon release.
  • Develop relationships with local employers to help dads with employment opportunities.
  • Counsel men to be upfront with potential employers about their criminal record.

Programs like RIDGE and T.O.R.I. are providing important support services to young fathers and their children — to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. They provide parenting and healthy relationships skills training, job readiness and placement support, mentoring and case management to maintain communication channels within families during incarceration and grow them upon release.  

*Names changed

Eugene Schneeberg, is a senior fatherhood & families technical specialist at ICF, where he works on technical assistance and outreach activities related to Responsible Fatherhood, Prisoner Reentry and workforce programs. He is the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

Solitary Confinement of Youth Used Frequently, Unfairly, New Report Says

Solitary confinement in juvenile facilities remains too widespread, is unnecessary and counterproductive, is unfairly applied and is harmful, a new report says.

In addition, experts lament the fact that there’s “a desperate need for better data on disparate treatment within facilities,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center and one of the report’s authors.

In the report, which aims to bridge the information gap, the center presents raw testimony from people who have experienced solitary, data on frequency and length of confinement, and solution-oriented litigation and policy strategies.

Karen U. Lindell, staff attorney at the center and another co-author, hopes that individual defenders, parents and people who run correctional institutions will find concrete tools and tactics, recent case law and policy examples in the report to help them limit and eliminate solitary confinement.

Litigation strategies include arguing for child-specific constitutional standards and challenging the failure to provide a meaningful education while ensuring post-disposition representation. Visiting local facilities and working with advocates and parents is also recommended to broaden the potential for outreach and education. The report will be the center of a congressional briefing this afternoon.

“This is a problem that can be solved,” Feierman said.

Almost half of juvenile facilities report that they isolate youth for more than four hours to control behavior. That time ranges from hours to months on end. Basic necessities such as mattresses, sheets, showers and utensils for eating plus mental health treatment are not guaranteed in solitary, let alone niceties such as outdoor time, books or writing materials.

“This is something that if I did it to my own children it would be called child abuse,” she said.

Reasons reported for use of solitary confinement range from understaffing and administrative convenience to discipline and self-harm prevention. Some subsets of the population are more likely to get put into isolation. Youth identifying as LGBTQ are at “heightened risk” of being put into solitary, as are youth of color and youth with disabilities, the report said.

Youth can be detained from 22 to 23 hours a day, with their only human contact the glimpse of a hand pushing meals through the door slat or the guard escorting you to the shower. For young people with ever-developing minds, this can have perverse effects on their mental health and neurological development.  

“Solitary has affected me in ways I have never known,” said Eddie Ellis, founder of One by 1. He was put into solitary confinement at 15. His time there, combined, was 10 years.

“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and I’ve had doctors help me out,” he said. “But again, I had an anxiety attack just the other day.”

His memories and those of other youth about their time in solitary support the report’s medical findings: Studies link solitary confinement with suicidal thoughts, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and psychosis.

The report paints a grim picture of a widespread yet under-researched practice that not only differs by facility and region, but is also extremely covert — many things behind those isolation chamber walls never escape them.

“It’s very secretive, and they don’t talk to parents about the conditions their kids are under,” said the mother of a young man held in solitary, quoted in the report. Even lawyers are left out of the loop — two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that youth never receive a hearing before being placed in solitary.

The report suggests solitary in youth facilities could be put to an end, should litigators, policymakers and communities continue to unite following the lead of former President Barack Obama, who banned the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons in 2016.

“It was a huge thing for President Barack Obama to come out and target juvenile solitary confinement like that,” Lindell said. “The number of children in federal prison is very small, but it sends a very powerful message to states — this isn't something that's necessary, this is something people are moving away from.”

Lindell pointed to Ohio and Massachusetts as states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Between 2014 and 2015 Ohio lessened its use by 88.6 percent, resulting in rates of violence dropping by 20 percent in the same timeframe. Its Department of Youth Services made major shifts in visitation hours and added chats with family via webcam calls, and programming such as sports, life skills classes, and movie nights in order to “decrease reliance on solitary confinement.”

Massachusetts' average confinement time is less than an hour. They have worked to educate their staff on de-escalation tactics and adolescent development training. Like Ohio, Massachusetts has employed evidence-based therapeutic models to shift their culture from a punitive to rehabilitative.

“Any time you can get states to understand that solitary is hurting people, it’s a win,” Ellis said.

The report closes with recommendations for reform to end this practice nationally. It encourages reformists not to settle for “altering” or “ameliorating” solitary conditions “for any reason other than to prevent immediate harm, with clear limits on its use even under emergency circumstances.”


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Ohio Legislators Propose Bill Giving Kids the Right to Counsel in Interrogations

Earlier this month, in a narrow 4-3 decision, the Ohio state Supreme Court ruled juveniles are not entitled to the many of the same legal protections as adults, including the right to counsel during police interrogations that occur before charges are filed. Now, several state legislators are responding, proposing a law that would overrule the high court’s decision.

Ohio state Minority Whip Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard, a Columbus-area Democrat, began drafting the proposed bill a year before the Oct. 3 Supreme Court ruling, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reports. The General Assembly proposal, co-sponsored by Rep. Ross McGregor, a Republican from Springfield, requires juveniles be informed of their right to counsel - either with an attorney or a parent or guardian - prior to police interrogations.

Prior to the state Supreme Court ruling, Ohio laws prohibited minors from waiving their right to counsel only in court proceedings, and not “investigator actions,” which include police interrogations.

Under the proposed law, confessions made by juveniles without the presence of a parent, legal guardian or attorney, are inadmissible as evidence. Parents are also prohibited from waiving their child’s legal rights on their behalf.

Heard said she hopes to introduce the legislation to the state House during the upcoming lame-duck session following the Nov. 6 election. It will also provide a chance to “get some more feedback” on the bill, she told The Plain Dealer.

“Why would we offer less protection to young people and children, who have less capacity to understand what the consequences are of the decisions that they're making in terms of their rights as citizens, than we would for adults?” Heard asked.

Photo from Rustwire.com

Ohio Juvenile Sex Offender Ruling Spotlights National Policy

Screen shot from "A Snapshot of Juvenile Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws: A Survey of the United States" 2011.
Juvenile sex offender registration varies widely by state, despite federal legislation aimed at standardizing requirements.

Juvenile sex offenders in Ohio will no longer be required to register as sex offenders for life, the state’s Supreme Court ruled last week. The 5-2 decision ruled the lifetime requirement is cruel and unusual punishment, reigniting a national debate on how young people convicted of certain sexual offenses should fare under the criminal justice system.

The majority opinion found certain parts of the Ohio Adam Walsh Act enacted in 2008 unconstitutional. Many states expanded laws pertaining to juvenile sex offenders following federal legislation in 2006 that sought to standardize how young sex offenders were classified and registered across the nation.

“Registration and notification requirements frustrate two of the fundamental elements of juvenile rehabilitation: confidentiality and the avoidance of stigma,” Ohio Justice Paul Pfiefer wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “Confidentiality promotes rehabilitation by allowing the juvenile to move into adulthood without the baggage of youthful mistakes.”

As a population, juveniles convicted of sexual offenses reoffend at a lower rate than their adult counterparts and juveniles charged with other delinquent behavior, according to the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth. About 5 percent to 14 percent of juvenile sex offenders reoffend recidivate by committing some form of criminal offense, compared to 40 percent of convicted adults and anywhere from 8 percent to 58 percent of juveniles who participate in other delinquent behavior.

Ohio was among the first to comply with near identical state-level laws, Pfiefer noted, yet since then many states have refused to follow suit – based largely on opposition to lifetime registration and notification requirements.

In 2011, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder modified guidelines to the federal law, Title I of the Adam Walsh Act, also known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), removing the requirement that lower jurisdictions publicly disclose juvenile sex offender information following adjudication and making it optional for states to provide the same information to sex offender websites, schools and other specified groups.

That same year, the first comprehensive survey looking at state laws for juvenile sex offender registration was published. Among the findings in “A Snapshot of Juvenile Sex Offender Registration and Notification Laws: A Survey of the United States:”

  • Juveniles are subject to sex offender registration and notification requirements in 35 states.
  • Seventeen of the states requiring registration of juveniles adjudicated delinquent do not subject them to adult registration requirements.
  • Juveniles are subject to lifetime registration in seven states.

“It feels like almost every state objects to the cost and the juvenile [privacy] issues,” Human Rights Watch Researcher and author of the snapshot, Nicole Pittman, said – adding that only three states (New York, California and Texas) have officially refused to comply. “Law enforcement does not feel it’s necessary to track kids like they do adult predators, and it’s taking away valuable resources.”

“It’s not an effective tool.”

Despite efforts to regulate the classification and handling of juvenile sex offenders across the nation, the study found that state registration requirements varied widely more than five years after the federal legislation went into effect.

The range of state laws is due, in part, to varying interpretations of SORNA, Pittman said.

UPDATE: Three Dead After Ohio School Shooting

Three students are dead and two others injured after another student opened fire in an Ohio high school. The alleged gunman has been identified as 17-year-old Thomas “TJ” Lane. He was described as an outcast by other students, according to WKYC, an NBC affiliate in Cleveland.

The victims were in the Chardon High School cafeteria when the shots were fired just after 7:30 a.m, WKYC reports. A teacher chased the alleged gunman out of the school where he surrendered himself to bystanders. He is currently in police custody.

The school, located about 30 miles east of Cleveland, has about 1,100 students.

Prayer vigils for the victims are planned for Tuesday.

While Overall Juvenile Crime Falls in Northern Ohio, Heroin Use Surges

Photo by Clay Duda

Officials in northern Ohio are seeing what they describe as an epidemic of drug use and offenses by juveniles.

In Geauga County, in northeast Ohio, drug charges increased by 38.8 percent, and felony drug charges increased by 180 percent, according to the local juvenile court's 2010 annual report.

The main drug being used is marijuana, while heroin is making a comeback, the report says.

Underage drinking cases in Geauga County have been the main reason children came to court in 16 of the last 18 years, but the cases are down this year, according to the News-Herald, a daily located in Willoughby east of Cleveland.

Officials attribute the increase in charges to crime enforcement efforts being made by a new judge. Some parents also say additional random drug screens and other efforts are saving their children.

While drug charges continue to skyrocket, overall crime has seen a significant reduction — a 17 percent difference between 2009 and 2010 — despite reductions in the court’s budget.

“What I think we have going on here is the word has gotten out that if you're a juvenile and you break the law, there are going to be serious consequences for it. The judge has been very public in talking about crime and truancy prevention,” Magistrate Jason Wuliger said.

JJIE recently reported that heroin was once seen only as a hardcore drug plaguing inner cities, but it has found new life as a drug of convenience for suburban teenagers.

Overall, heroin use is not increasing. A White House Office of National Drug Control Policy report showed heroin use among high school kids nationally drop from 3.3 percent in 2003 to 1.3 percent in 2008, but the demographic of juveniles using the drug is shifting.

OxyContin Abuse Plagues Ohio

Ohio is struggling with a severe prescription drug abuse epidemic, according to a story in The New York Times. In the last decade, fatal overdoses surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the state.

Most popular among drug addicts is the painkiller OxyContin.  Read more about the devastating effects of prescription drugs and OxyContin abuse in Prescribed Addiction, the first in our ongoing series, Journeys.