How One City in Ohio Reduced Youth Imprisonment

Posted by Maureen Kishna

Apr 4, 2018 1:13:12 PM

After years of collaborating, two local leaders helped bring MST to Toledo, Ohio and saw reductions in youth incarceration

When you meet matriarchs, you just know it. You feel their power, and you recognize their force. That’s how I felt when I made the acquaintance of Deborah Hodges, administrator of the Lucas County (Ohio) Juvenile Court and her colleague, Karen Olnhausen of their Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. In 2010, I met them at the launch of Toledo’s Multisystemic Therapy (MST) program. These are the ladies whom I affectionately call the godmothers of MST in Toledo because they had worked for years to bring it to their community. Finally, their goal was achieved through funding from the Ohio Department of Youth Services Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative.

When I had the pleasure of talking with Deb more than seven years later, on the brink of her retirement, I was no less inspired by her passionate, powerful mission as she shared with me her reflections on Toledo’s story of reducing the number of youth sent to our state’s juvenile incarceration system (ODYS) from 300 youth in 1988 to only 19 youth last year. This reduction of nearly 95 percent is worth examining.


Key ingredients

Deb said that some key factors that led to the reduction in the number of youth on probation from 1,200 to 1,500 a year in the late ’80s to just 157 youth in 2017 were:

  • "Do no harm"
    • We know that even having kids merely touch the juvenile justice system can be harmful to them. Now, we divert them whenever possible by:
      • No longer putting any youth on probation who has only misdemeanor charges.
      • Not using restrictive placements for low-level offenders. Such placements often lead to worse life outcomes.
      • Developing a Youth Assessment Center to serve youth who have low-level offenses. After receiving an assessment there, including standardized risk-assessment measures, they are connected with the most appropriate services, one of which is MST.
  • Using research to assess what to build into the court’s continuum of care. 
    • “When you know better, do better.”
    • We are inspired by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to “Use the data to drive everything you do.”
    • Be guided by Dr. Ed Latessa’s mantra from the University of Cincinnati—determine “Which program, for which kid, at which time."
  • Implement MST
    • MST was a natural choice for Lucas County as it aligned with the juvenile-justice reform efforts we were undertaking because—
      • It invests in the caregivers, who have the greatest ability to make the most long-lasting changes in a family, which can help everyone, not just the youth referred to the court.
      • It’s so focused on working with the parents, teaching and supporting them, even in the schools. 
      • It has a strong track record of good outcomes for the youth the court serves.
      • There is external, independent fidelity measurement and reporting that tells us how the program is being implemented.
        • This prevents us from sliding back into doing what we are comfortable doing, but may not be best practice or evidence based. Its holds us all accountable. 
      • It helps us problem solve together when we have issues that face our youth in the community.
      • We get a detailed report that tells much more than just recidivism rates, and that is exceptional.
        • All systems need to look at the whole child and life outcomes, beyond arrest data. There is more to a youth than just that. 
  • Know that reform is a process that takes time, and understand that it’s hard to change long-standing practices. People evolve, and systems evolve. Recognize it’s not easy for court staff to keep embracing change as evidence informs policy and practice changes.

These are just a few of the many ingredients that Deb shared that led to their community’s success in achieving significant juvenile justice reform. 

It’s clear to me that Deb and Karen’s leadership, and the court and system evolution that they have been a part of, will leave a lasting legacy to the youth and community of Greater Toledo. I can’t help but be so grateful and joyful to have worked alongside them on this most important journey of juvenile justice and system transformation.

Maureen Kishna, LISW-S, is the MST expert/program developer at the Center for Innovative Practices, Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Case Western Reserve University.

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform