BREAKING: State settles suit over youth prisons

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 3, 2008

COLUMBUS, Oho (AP) – The state on Thursday settled a lawsuit alleging serious problems with its juvenile detention system. One report called Ohio’s use of solitary confinement ”unconstitutional on its face.”

The Department of Youth Services said the settlement calls for as much as $30 million in additional annual spending and hiring more than 100 extra guards.

The state will also hire additional psychologists, nurses, social workers and teachers, improve its off-hours programs for children and revamp its program for sex offenders.

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The settlement ends legal challenges that began in 2004 with allegations of excessive force being used against girls at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility.

A report released late last year found Ohio’s youth prisons are overcrowded and understaffed and fail to educate children behind bars or keep them safe.

It also found excessive use of force is common and ingrained in the operations of the agency.

A judge must still approve the settlement filed Thursday in federal court in Columbus.

The state is satisfied the agreement will bring much-needed change to the system, said Tom Stickrath, director of the Youth Services Department. He said the extra funding is a strain during tight budget times but eventually could lead to lower costs as the system improves.

The annual budget for the system, which serves about 1,700 children, is about $260 million.

”It’s certainly a long-term investment in doing the right thing for the youth in our system, for the juvenile courts across the state and ultimately for the citizens,” Stickrath said in an interview.

”It’s a difficult time to be looking at any extra resources but I think it’s a needed investment in our future,” he said.

A veteran civil rights attorney who helped coordinate the lawsuit commended the state for settling.

”The plan safeguards public safety while working toward more youth being served in smaller, more appropriate, community-based facilities,” said Cincinnati attorney Alphonse Gerhardstein.

The system has a troubled history.

In 2004, lawyers with the Children’s Law Center of Kentucky sued the state over allegations of excessive force being used against girls at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility.

Around the same time, the Department of Justice launched an investigation over the same allegations.

Twelve employees at the Scioto facility were eventually charged with abusing and endangering inmates and in early 2005 the agency’s director was forced to resign.

A year ago, the Children’s Law Center and other groups updated the 2004 suit to include the entire agency, saying the state had made inadequate progress on its promises to address their concerns.

In response, the state agreed to let consultant Fred Cohen investigate the entire system. Cohen also reviewed problems at the Scioto facility in 2004.

In addition to overcrowding and excessive force, Cohen’s December report found that guards regularly place children in solitary confinement for inappropriately long periods of time, a practice that ”is unconstitutional on its face” and should cease immediately, the report concluded.

At one center, the Ohio River Valley Juvenile Correctional Facility in southern Ohio, fear is ”an all-consuming fire,” the report said.

There, ”youth fear other youth, youth fear staff, and staff fear youth,” the report said.

Cohen’s report also found that the department’s eight detention centers have no functioning mental health program and a school system in disarray.

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