Youth, Trauma, Trials, Time: What Drives Disparities in Hamilton County's Juvenile Justice System?

Hamilton County’s juvenile justice system has been in the background of some of this summer’s most intense news. A close look at the system reveals big racial disparities — but also efforts to change outcomes.

click to enlarge Abdul Kabir Muhammad - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
Abdul Kabir Muhammad

This story is part one in the four-part series Youth, Trauma, Trials, Time: a Deep Dive Into Youth and the Justice System. You can read additional coverage herehere and here.

The late afternoon sun is streaming into the windows of the Clifton Mosque’s lobby by the time Abdul Kabir Muhammad walks in, a coral shirt to match the sunset stretched across broad shoulders, a big smile pulling his black beard upward.

Muhammad’s shirt is flecked with grass from the mowing he’s been doing that day— and most days, all day, for the last couple years. 

The 35-year-old started his own landscaping business that now takes him across the city and into tony suburbs like Indian Hill as a way to support his three children after he spent more than nine years in a state prison in Madison County.

Muhammad is very open about his past, but isn’t here to talk about that time, necessarily. He’s here to talk about a time before that; before he went to prison and discovered Islam and a sense of stability, before the whirlwind of adult court appearances, a time when he was still a kid with a single mom trying to navigate the quickly-draining environs of Cincinnati’s near West Side. When the trouble started. 

“I can look back and see and admit that a lot of what I was doing was reactionary,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t want to see it that way — I was still in war mode. When you’re young and you experience and witness violence from the first, it makes you a certain way. My home wasn’t bad. My mom was on top of everything. But my environment outside of that — Westwood, Price Hill, those areas — you had things like someone throwing a rock and hitting you in the head and taking your bookbag. Those kinds of things affect you.”

Muhammad’s experience isn’t unique. Hamilton County’s lower-income neighborhoods and schools like the ones he grew up in — many of them predominantly black, thanks to decades of government policies and market forces that wrought intense economic segregation — feed a highly disproportionate number of African-American youth into the county’s juvenile justice system. 

That system has been in the background of local conversations about crime, justice and race lately. In the midst of a sweltering summer during which gun violence claimed the lives of multiple minors as young as 14, the saga of Democratic former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter reached a furious coda when she was dragged out of a Hamilton County courtroom to serve a six-month sentence. Hunter ran on promises to reform the county’s juvenile system, and, her supporters say, paid a political price for trying to do so. Others, however, say Hunter fell behind on her job, didn’t work with other judges and broke the law. 

Whether or not Hunter was treated justly, the racial disparities she campaigned on fixing are real, viewable in black and white in the form of Hamilton County Juvenile Court data and Cincinnati Police arrest records. 

In a county where Census data says 30.3 percent of people under 18 are African-American, 81 percent of the more than 2,000 minors issued warrants through the Hamilton County Juvenile Court last year were black, according to data CityBeat obtained from the court — up from 75 percent in 2015. And 75 percent of the 930 young people admitted to the county’s youth detention center in 2018 were black — though that’s down from 80 percent in 2015.

Those disparities also exist on the front lines of the juvenile justice system: select streets and schools in Cincinnati and its poorer suburbs, most predominantly black, where police make the most juvenile arrests. In Cincinnati, which is about 43 percent black, 85 to 90 percent of juveniles arrested by Cincinnati Police have been black in recent years, arrest data from the city shows. 

Few dispute the clear over-representation of black youth in the county’s juvenile justice system. And those disparities certainly aren't unique to Hamilton County — they're part of  national trends involving race and the justice system in a country where the prison population ballooned from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2 million by 2015 and in which black citizens are incarcerated at five times the rate whites citizens are. Those trends extend to juveniles. While roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population under the age of 18 is black, 42 percent of children detained in juvenile justice systems across the country are black.

But that is just the start of a vast, complicated conversation. Why are so many more black youth arrested in Hamilton County, either in schools or in neighborhoods? What happens to them when they enter the juvenile system? What roles do racial bias, socioeconomic factors and the trauma that can come with growing up without resources play? 

Pushing against these questions are still more numbers: police are arresting far fewer youth than they used to — part of a national trend in falling crime rates — and Hamilton County Juvenile Court is locking up or sending away far fewer of them to state juvenile detention centers thanks in part to a series of diversion programs, court officials say. In the last five years, the number of youth detained in Hamilton County has dropped nearly 20 percent.

In 1995, Hamilton County Juvenile Court sent 440 young people, most of them African-American, to detention facilities run by Ohio’s Department of Youth Services. Last year, it sent just 60. It also transferred 130 young people to the adult justice system via a process known as “bind-over” in 1995; last year, it bound over 33 youth. Of those, however, 30 were black. 

click to enlarge Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge John Williams - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge John Williams

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge John Williams, a Republican and former juvenile prosecutor, ran against Hunter and was later appointed and then elected judge in 2012. He acknowledges the disparities in terms of the youth who come through his doors, but defends the court’s treatment of them. 

For him, it boils down to economics. 

“The reason we’re having so many more minority kids is that there is not as much opportunity in those areas (where they live),” Williams says. “If the family is being pulled apart, if mom’s working maybe two jobs or more, the young ones are left to be taking care of themselves. Now, these numbers are the vast minority of people. Criminal complaints are down by half from their peak (in the 1990s). And we’ve also taken a different path here in the court.”

Even with fewer arrests, detentions and bind-overs, however, the disparities persist. Some activists say that police shouldn’t be arresting kids in schools and neighborhoods at all and that children shouldn’t be subjected to courts. Others, including legal advocates, say that police and courts still need to do a better job offering community-based means by which to deal with young people. 

The Northern Kentucky-based Children’s Law Center advocates for young people caught up in Hamilton County’s juvenile justice system and other courts throughout the region. CLC reentry attorney Carrie Gilbert says the drivers of the large racial disparities in the county’s juvenile justice system are complex. 

“I don’t think it’s coming from any single source,” she says. “I don’t think we will ever be able to just point and say, ‘It’s the police,’ or, ‘It’s the county.’ I think it’s white supremacy that is ingrained in our systems and our institutions. I think it’s very difficult for institutions to have conversations about that.” 

The Front Lines

click to enlarge The intake area of the Hamilton County Youth Center - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
The intake area of the Hamilton County Youth Center

Data shows most of the roughly 1,800 juvenile arrests in Cincinnati that happened in 2016 occurred in neighborhoods like the ones Muhammad grew up in. In 2016, Westwood saw almost 150 juvenile arrests — 85 percent of them black youth. The West End saw more than 160 juvenile arrests that year, all but a handful of them black youth. College Hill saw roughly 200 juvenile arrests — more than 90 percent of them black youth.

Meanwhile, predominantly white, higher-income neighborhoods had far fewer arrests of young people. Hyde Park saw fewer than 30. Mount Lookout had just a few.

But the pattern isn’t always clear-cut: Some lower-income, majority black neighborhoods like Millvale and South Cumminsville also had very few juvenile arrests, even when controlling for the size of the populations there.

The disparities go beyond arrests. 

In connection with a lawsuit last year over the tasing of an 11-year-old girl by an off-duty CPD officer at a Kroger, attorneys with Cincinnati law firm Gerhardstein & Branch analyzed taser use by CPD from 2013 to 2018. They found that all but six of the 110 minors tased by CPD were black, and that 48 of those youth were under the age of 15. 

Not all of that legal trouble for young people starts in schools, but there are hundreds of arrests at districts like Cincinnati Public Schools every year. And data obtained via a public records request by CityBeat shows big disparities in arrests between 2011 and 2015 in CPS. CityBeat has requested more recent data but has yet to receive it from Cincinnati Police. 

In 2015, 595 of the 670 charges against minors leading to arrests on CPS property were against black youth — 89 percent. That’s well above the 63 percent of district students who are black. Data for the four previous years — representing more than 3,700 charges leading to arrests when including 2015 data — show similar disparities. Some incidents reflected in the data seem to involve multiple charges against a single student, while others show a single charge leading to an arrest.

Not surprisingly, those arrests tend to happen in the district’s larger high schools, but not all of them. Western Hills High School in Westwood, which has a student body of just over 1,000, saw more than 1,300 charges leading to arrests between 2011 and 2015, according to the data. Aiken High School in College Hill, which has about 650 students, saw 540 charges leading to arrests over those five years. Withrow High School, which hosts roughly 1,200 students, saw roughly 500 in that time period. All are predominantly black schools, and the majority of arrests were of black students..

Predominantly white Walnut Hills, meanwhile, CPS’ flagship high school with an enrollment of almost 3,000, saw roughly 20 charges and arrests from 2011 to 2015, according to the data. 

Some of the charges and arrests at CPS were for fighting, weapons possession or other serious safety concerns. Others, however, are harder to ascribe to safety. 

Between 2011 and 2015, three charges against 8-year-olds, three against 9-year-olds, 18 against 10-year-olds, 27 against 11-year-olds and 66 against 12-year-olds led to arrests at CPS elementary schools. 

Some of those incidents were also intense; for example, a 2015 fight in which one 9-year-old was arrested for repeatedly kicking and punching another young student with a group of other students until the victim had a broken elbow and bruised spine. Others, however, were seemingly minor, sometimes stemming from events like throwing things in a school cafeteria or pranks.  

In one 2014 case, police reports reveal that a white school staff member called officers on an 8-year-old student for making a lewd phone call over a school telephone. That student ended up with a written citation from officers and a call home to his parents, though no further action seems to have been taken following the arrest. 

CPS did not respond to two emails seeking details about the district’s policies around law enforcement. Cincinnati Police Schools Resource Officers, however, were happy to talk about their work in CPS. 

SROs have been somewhat controversial in Cincinnati, with some activist groups saying they represent an inappropriate law enforcement presence in places that should be dedicated to learning. Before changing its name to Cincinnati Mass Action for Black Liberation, Cincinnati Black Lives Matter mounted a relatively popular and long-running “CPD Out of CPS” campaign protesting police presence in local public schools. 

But Cincinnati Police School Resource Officer Eddie Hawkins says SROs work to build rapport with students precisely so they can head off problems and avoid arrests — an assessment even some police accountability advocates like the Black United Front’s Iris Roley and attorney Al Gerhardstein of Gerhardstein & Branch generally agree with. 

Hawkins grew up in Avondale and readily admits he questioned some of the things he saw from police when he was younger. He also acknowledges there is some racial bias in policing and in the arrest disparities both in the juvenile and adult justice systems. 

But for Hawkins, the main drivers are a mix of readily available, sometimes-violent social media, the crumbling of low-income families and the tightly wound issues of race and poverty that sometimes come to a boiling point in some public schools and neighborhoods with lower-income youth. Add to the mix the fact that most students in those situations don’t have the resources to mount a legal defense or the networks to keep an incident out of the courts the way more affluent families might, and that some officers patrolling those areas don’t have much exposure to minority communities, and you’ve got a recipe for the kinds of disparities shown in the data, he says.  

“I don’t think anyone says racism doesn’t exist,” he says. “Are we really willing to have the tough conversations about it? I can show you the disparities when it comes to African-Americans and arrests. But let’s talk about the intangibles that are happening that get those kids in trouble. Are some kids in the suburbs doing acid, doing dope, stealing their parents’ credit cards? They’re up to a lot of the same things, but it’s a different environment.”

Trauma around violence in some communities also plays a big role, Hawkins says.

“When you have a third or fourth grader who is losing classmates to violence, stray bullets, or they’re losing their 14- or 15-year-old siblings to violent crimes — that’s very traumatic,” Hawkins says. “I hear young people say they’re not going to live to 18. That’s their reality. 

“We also have a lot of families that are experiencing homelessness. Some of these folks have jobs. The American dream sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. You’re out here, you’re working and, yeah, maybe you had kids younger than you should have, but you’re trying to make ends meet, and it gets stressful. And then maybe you’re living out of a car, and the kids see their parents are doing what they can, but they don’t have the best clothes at school and they get ragged on — all those things wear on the psyche of a young person. When you’re young, your brain isn’t developed enough to take on all of that. So, a lot of young people crack and lash out.”

Against that backdrop, the role SROs play isn’t well-understood, he says. They’re there to mediate conflicts and to connect students with things like CPD’s Summer Cadet Program and an annual student-organized Youth Summit as well as to mental health services that schools and outside providers offer, according to Hawkins.

“For us it’s an opportunity to engage young people a little more in-depth,” he says. “With your normal officer on the street, the interactions they’re having with young people are generally negative, because they’re responding to a crime. Yes, ultimately, our job is to police. If there is a criminal infraction, we’ll handle it like a criminal infraction. However, we have the ability to be flexible. We can take into consideration if a young person has a lot going on. What can we do before we get to the justice system, before we take this person to jail?”

CPD has 14 SROs responsible for 112 public, charter and private schools. Each SRO is based at one of CPS’ high schools. From those schools, each also covers middle and elementary schools in the general geographic area, as well as covering for neighboring SROs when they’re busy or off duty. 

It’s a lot different from other departments across the country, says CPD Youth Services Unit Supervisor Cassandra Tucker. 

“In most cities, it’s two SROs in a high school, one in the middle school, one in the elementary,” she says. “One SRO here could have a high school plus 12 to 14 other schools.”

Both Hawkins and Tucker acknowledge implicit bias plays a role in disparities in the juvenile justice system and policing.

“We’ve worked with individuals who had never worked around African-Americans until they got this job," Tucker says. "It’s hard for me to believe, but it happens. Are there biases? Yes. Is there racism? Yes. But it’s about what you do about it.”

A few CPS teachers, speaking off the record, have said they generally don’t worry about SROs, but expressed concerns about drug sweeps and locker searches by CPD at schools like Aiken. 

Hamilton County Public Defender Juvenile Division Director Alison Hatheway echoes those concerns and adds that she has seen video of at least two cases in which officers in schools used force against youth that she felt was “disturbing” and wasn’t warranted.

“They do go in and do random searches,” she says. “I know that happens. And it may happen more regularly at some schools than others.”

Despite those concerns, Hatheway acknowledges she’s seen fewer youth coming to the court from CPS in recent years, even before the Ohio General Assembly effectively decriminalized truancy in 2017. But there is still work to be done, she says.

 “I think Cincinnati Public Schools have been less quick to bring kids in,” she says. “It’s less of a problem now, but it’s still happening. I feel like if it happens once, that’s too many times, but I’m admittedly on the other side of the fence. School isn’t the place where you should go expecting to be arrested. Now, if blood is being shed or things like that, that’s different. But generally, the stuff we see, the little fights and theft… no.”

First Signs of Trouble

click to enlarge Central Fairmount School, where Muhammad went to elementary, closed in 2008. - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
Central Fairmount School, where Muhammad went to elementary, closed in 2008.

The links between school, neighborhood and the justice system aren’t new. 

Back when he was growing up around Westwood, Price Hill and South Fairmount in the 1990s, Muhammad went by the name on his birth certificate — Romyl Williams. 

His neighborhood was tough. South Fairmount, where Central Fairmount School was located, had an unemployment rate of 16 percent in 1990, just before Muhammad would have been preparing to start school there, and more than a quarter of people in the neighborhood lived below the poverty line. 

His mother was single, and by the age of 9, he had experienced things that would put him in what he calls “a constant state of fight-or-flight” — including a brawl starting from a friendly game of football that at one point seemed to bring out most of the people living in his apartment complex. 

That year, he says he was kicked out of Central Fairmount after a fight with a white student who was pulling on Muhammad’s sister’s hair and pushing her. Muhammad stepped in, he says, leading the other student to call him the n-word. The resulting altercation left the other child with a concussion. Muhammad soon found himself in the principal’s office with his mother, who argued to keep Muhammad in school as the other child’s mother was calling for him to be expelled. The principal decided Muhammad should go.

“In that moment, I felt like something was wrong with the world,” he says. “Because my mom was my world. She wasn’t on drugs. I never saw her drink. I never saw her lift a cigarette to her face. She was just a single black woman who had children young and could only afford a place in the ghetto. I saw this person who was the world for me, who was my source of power, be overpowered. And I gave up on the world a little after that, I think. I began to see that I had to find power for myself.”

Looking to keep him in school, Muhammad’s mother shifted him to his grandmother’s house, just across the city line in Colerain. School there was easier in some ways, and harder in others. 

While he enjoyed the calmer atmosphere, Muhammad says it was hard to adjust to a predominantly white school after having attended one that was mostly black. Behavior problems began surfacing as he struggled to fit in, and within a year, he was placed in a special education class. 

“They didn’t have a system in place to deal with that at the time,” he says. “They had not dealt with children who came from the inner city who had problems with violence because we came from a violent environment. So they isolated you. It turned into, ‘How did this kid get in here?’ I felt like. It was confusion on top of confusion. And just to protect my sanity, I had to make myself not care about things. And that’s when your behavior becomes risky.” 

The family continued to move around, landing in Mount Healthy when Muhammad was in his teens. He wasn’t the only one coming from a rough environment to the suburban community at the time. 

“All of my friends who came out there came from the inner city,” he says. “Some from Winton Terrace, some from downtown, some from Bond Hill. Their moms flocked out to Mount Healthy. Certain neighborhoods have their gangs and their rivalries. And in those neighborhoods, it was contained. But in Mount Healthy, all those kids who came from all those rival neighborhoods, rival streets, now we’re all in one neighborhood.”

At 14, a group mistook Muhammad for a member of a rival gang, he says, because they knew where he had moved from. They started to jump him, but a group from another gang stepped in and fought for him.  

“That hit my heart,” he says. “So, I started to run with them for awhile. That’s when everything avalanched.”

Muhammad had a few run-ins with the law as a fledgling gang member that didn’t amount to much, but at 16 he was arrested during a large fight between rival groups at Mount Healthy High School. He was charged with assault and spent several days in 2020 — the Hamilton County Youth Center, nicknamed “2020” for its address at 2020 Auburn Ave. in Mount Auburn — before he was released. 

The experience marked another turning point for him, he says.

“It was weird,” he says. “Very weird, because it was my first time in the system. After that, it was nonstop.”

In 2020

click to enlarge A cell in the Hamilton County Youth Center - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
A cell in the Hamilton County Youth Center

In the years since Muhammad first spent time in the Youth Center, the juvenile justice system has changed somewhat. 

These days, young people picked up by police or brought by guardians enter the large, angular Hamilton County Youth Center in Mount Auburn from a lower level and take Elevator 4 to the first floor, where they are booked into the facility’s secure northern side. 

On the southern side, there are two courtrooms and a battery of psychological assessment units where court clinicians and others work to keep some family behavioral issues from hitting court dockets and assess young people already there for competency to stand trial and mental health issues. 

In many ways, the secure side of the facility is much like you would expect a detention facility to be. Guards in a central security kiosk monitor video feeds from across the huge facility and buzz staff and visitors through double sets of locked doors. The construction is cinder block, the interior spartan and white. 

Brian Bell is the director of detention here. He wears a crisp suit, sports neatly cropped hair and has just a hint of a twang when he speaks. 

On a recent tour of the facility, Bell runs through the procedure when a young person is brought in. 

First, a county clerk — one of several working at cinder block cubicles here on the first floor — will review police reports and determine whether the county has probable cause to hold the young person. The youth is also asked whether they are injured, ill, under the influence or pregnant — all conditions that could result in being taken to the hospital instead of held in the Youth Center. 

Youth are also assessed for risk of suicide — the last at the Youth Center was in 1985 — and if they are found to be at high risk, they are monitored by detention facility staff every four or five minutes via a system where guards must push a button just outside the window into a youth’s cell. If the button isn’t pushed within that time frame, the central security kiosk is alerted. Lower-risk youth are monitored in person every 14 to 15 minutes. 

The probable cause determination that happens early in the intake process is important. In 2014, the Children’s Law Center sued Hamilton County over allegations it was holding young people in violation of their constitutional rights to due process. The suit cited two particular cases in which juveniles were held for more than 20 days in the Youth Center without probable cause determinations, but the CLC also sought to make the legal challenge a class-action suit, citing the 2,340 youth detained at the center the prior year. 

The suit also cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that suggested that black children in Hamilton County were almost 10 times more likely to be arrested in 2013 than white children and more than two times as likely to be placed in detention. 

As a result of the lawsuit, the county juvenile court agreed to make significant changes in its intake processes, including new processes for warrants issued for youth, more training for clerks at the Youth Center, the creation of an on-duty magistrate position available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to weigh in on probable cause and other changes.

The county also has a new risk-assessment tool called RAI developed last year in collaboration with youth advocates, nonprofits, the prosecutor’s office and others to better determine when a child can be safely diverted from detention. That computerized assessment tool considers age, offense history, seriousness of the current alleged offense, whether parents or guardians are available, whether there are diversion options open and a number of other details. 

“We try to divert and cite as often as possible,” Bell says. “Twenty years ago, you’d have a high percentage (of kids staying here). We had 200 kids as our everyday population. Now, based on movements to not detain low-level offenders, we have 82 people here today.”

County officials can choose to override the RAI — either in favor of diversion, or the other way around — holding youth they believe pose too steep a risk to release.

If there is probable cause to hold someone, the youth will be given a plea hearing date. They are then admitted, given jumpsuits and slippers issued by the Youth Center, searched fully and given the opportunity to shower. 

There are also myriad health care options available at the Youth Center, including two nurses from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital available 24 hours a day, a part-time dental clinic and mental health care. All youth held in the Youth Center also attend classes instructed by CPS teachers from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day. 

click to enlarge A garden at the Hamilton County Youth Center - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
A garden at the Hamilton County Youth Center

Bell stresses that the Youth Center is focused on programming that can help provide therapeutic activities — 22 different offerings that range from art to yoga to gardening in an area outside the center’s gym — plus a variety of other programs offered by faith-based groups.

“I learned how to play chess in here,” Youth Center Housing Director Will Allen says of one of those programs as he stands outside an austere, green-and-white painted “pod” where the kids live. “One of the kids taught me. It used to be every time I came in for my shift — his name was Ron, I still remember him — we’d sit down and play.”

The average stay in the Youth Center — before young people go to a state-run facility, a placement or 30 days probation on an electronic monitoring unit — is roughly 27 days, a number that has gotten higher since 2015, when it was just 18 days. But the numbers are slightly deceptive, court administrators say. 

When young adults over 18 held in a separate part of the Youth Center thanks to the passage of a 2012 law are taken out of the equation, the average stay drops to 18 days. That’s still up from almost 12 days in 2015, however. 

Most are awaiting hearings before one of the court system’s 22 magistrates or one of its two judges for serious, felony-level offenses. 

Multiple Roads from the Court

Those hearings mostly happen downtown at the former headquarters of the defunct Cincinnati Times-Star newspaper. The towering, Gotham City-style Art Deco tower was built in 1933, when journalism still made money, and looms over Broadway Street.

Judge Williams hears cases in the Times-Star’s wood-paneled former boardroom on the 14th floor, and his chambers are next door in the former president’s office. That’s poetic, Williams says — his great-grandfather once worked as a landscaper for Hulbert Taft, who ran the Times-Star and sat in the same office.

One of Williams’ cases on a recent August morning involves Kevin*, a 16-year-old being tried on charges related to attempted grand theft. He had been in what is called a “placement” — a residential alternative to a detention facility — called Hillcrest just north of Cincinnati in Wyoming. But he’s walked out twice, and now prosecutors want to send him to a state juvenile detention center. Kevin’s attorney wants him to get one more chance at Hillcrest, saying despite his attempts to leave he has made progress there. 

Williams splits the difference, sending Kevin to a different placement outside Columbus called Abraxas. That facility has somewhat more intensive drug addiction and mental health programs, though public defenders note its distance from Cincinnati — more than three hours — often makes family therapy sessions and visits difficult for some. 

Kevin has seen a lot, Williams notes. He knows that from disposition reports he receives — confidential histories of each youth printed on green paper. Kevin’s mother has struggled mightily with addiction and his father is absent. Kevin himself has faced challenges with mental illness.

“I know you’ve faced terrible things in your life,” Williams tells him. “But you don’t have the right to take other people’s things.” 

Williams says many of the youth he sees come through his court are struggling like Kevin with various forms of trauma. It’s his job, he says, to balance that with the risks of keeping a young person from being detained.

“We’re all learning more about the impacts of trauma,” he says. “But it’s how you treat it and move forward with it. It’s amazing how many of these kids have not only friends but immediate family who have been shot, for example.”

click to enlarge The Hamilton County Juvenile Court building at 800 Broadway Street - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
The Hamilton County Juvenile Court building at 800 Broadway Street

Guns, Fear and  the Law

Muhammad knows all about that. Just a couple years after his first brush with the juvenile system, as he was on the cusp of legal adulthood, two things happened: first, three brothers from Evanston Muhammad knew well were gunned down in their home for money they had made selling drugs; only one narrowly survived by playing dead. 

“He was my friend,” Muhammad says of the survivor. “That turned me into a soldier. I was like, ‘I’m not getting done like that.’ So that deep insecurity, you know, the defensiveness, set in, and I went out and got a gun.”

Not long after, Muhammad found himself in a gun battle of his own when a younger cousin got caught up in a fight at a run-down motel near Springdale. It was another in a growing line of brushes with the law. A young woman was shot, but the bullets that injured her weren’t from Muhammad’s .38 caliber handgun, so he got off with felony probation. 

But the die was cast. Over time, Muhammad moved from selling a little weed into harder drugs. In 2005, he was caught selling heroin in a drug bust that aired on the TV show COPS. A stint in jail for that offense introduced him to the men with whom he would eventually catch the burglary case that netted him almost a decade in prison.

“I was 22 years old facing a nine-year sentence,” he says. “I had to figure out how I got there. And I really think it was that environment during those developmental years of my life. That survival, defensive mentality came early. You’re not looking toward when you get to high school, you’re trying to get through this day.”

These days, court administrators say, there are a number of diversion programs that might help young people stay off that particular path. 

According to court data, roughly 60 percent of the youth who come to the Youth Center end up in some kind of diversion program — though attorneys who represent those youth say the programs aren’t always successful and question whether they do enough to keep kids out of detention facilities. 

“What we’ve been finding is that the court has these kind of catch-all programs that they utilize,” says juvenile public defender Hatheway. “But that program may not meet that kid’s needs. We’ve been working to find more community resources. Sometimes we might advocate that placement isn’t warranted — you shouldn’t be pulling kids out of their homes.” 

The public defender’s office this year received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to develop more individualized ways to advocate for and legally represent youth caught up in the juvenile justice system, Hatheway says. 

The court does have a series of community diversion dockets based in Avondale, Price Hill and other communities that have seen large numbers of juvenile arrests. Those community courts served about 300 people last year, according to court data. The aim, court administrators say, is to keep kids out of actual court and to keep their records clean while solving community problems. 

There is also an option available to a handful of qualified youth each year: highly individualized, therapy-intensive dockets for those suffering specific mental health challenges. 

The Mental Health Docket

click to enlarge Magistrate David Kelley talks with parole officer James Mack and a Lighthouse clinician before a pretrial diversion docket hearing. - NICK SWARTSELL
Nick Swartsell
Magistrate David Kelley talks with parole officer James Mack and a Lighthouse clinician before a pretrial diversion docket hearing.

In a mint-green room in the lower level of Lighthouse Youth & Family Service’s enormous, Swiss chalet-like building in Walnut Hills, a team of the nonprofit’s therapists, case managers and education specialists as well as court employees sit around a table hashing out cases on the county’s Individualized Disposition Docket, which was created in 2004. Another docket for lower-level offenders, the Pretrial Diversion Docket, was created in 2007. Between the two, they served 57 youth last year, roughly 60 percent of whom successfully completed the program.

Information for each case — and recommendations for the docket’s magistrate, David Kelley — are projected large on the wall.

One case involves a 17-year-old named Darren* facing a felony assault charge. He’s also struggling with substance abuse issues, but his case worker and Hamilton County probation officer James Mack explain that he’s recently had several of his friends die and has been using marijuana to cope. Mack says the young man shows charisma in his group therapy sessions and believes he could tap into those skills in a positive way. But he’s insecure about his intelligence and acts out sometimes during therapy. 

Youth legal advocates say such dockets are helpful, but question why they serve such a small number of youth and also point out they place a large onus on the families of the youth involved. 

“Many of our kids have troubles that circle back to trauma and mental health issues,” says Kelsey Vice, a social worker with the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Juvenile Division. “I think a lot of our kids could benefit from programs like (IDD). But at the same time, those programs also require a lot of parental involvement and a lot of court involvement. I had a case recently where the kid was a perfect fit for the program, but the guardian wanted no part of it. She didn’t want it normalized for him to be in front of a court on a bi-weekly or weekly basis. Parents have the right to say no to these programs. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want help of some kind.” 

The day after the meeting at Lighthouse, back at the Youth Center’s non-secure side, Magistrate Kelley hears the half-dozen or so cases on his docket, including Darren’s. 

Lighthouse Intake Coordinator Amy Duwell tells Magistrate Kelley that Darren is doing well in his group therapy sessions when he applies himself. 

“In group, he has such positive leadership skills when he uses them for that,” she says. “Good, bad or otherwise, the other guys really look up to him. He has a lot of potential.” 

Kelley praises Darren for not picking up new charges and for his positive progress, including earning some school credits in math. He gives a three-week continuance for Darren’s case pending a drug test.

Not everyone caught up in the juvenile courts gets such individualized treatment, some attorneys point out. While more than 80 percent of youths receiving warrants in Hamilton County are black, only 56 percent of the youths in county diversion programs are. 

Not all probation programs end up working for young people, CLC Executive Director Acena Beck says.

“The magistrates who are ruling on these probation violations don’t always know these kids. They only see these kids when they’re in trouble. They’re getting these reports, but they’re not getting a holistic view. I understand that there is this balance between community safety and not locking kids up, but I think Hamilton County probation in an attempt to be more holistic, they’re interacting with the kids a lot, seeing every single little slip up. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Beck says Hamilton County could do more to address racial disparities by adopting policies developed 25 years ago by the Annie E. Casey Foundation called Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Some 300 counties across the country use JDAI, including Cuyahoga, Franklin, Montgomery, Lucas, Summit and other counties in Ohio.

The approach pushes even further toward reducing the number of youths detained by the juvenile system by engaging law enforcement agencies, community partners and other stakeholders and increasing options for community-based programs, expanded shelter care and home detention. Those efforts have reduced daily populations in participating counties’ detention centers by an average of 40 percent, and decreased detention of minority youth by an average of 44 percent.

“I think our biggest focus is on the racial and ethnic disparities,” Beck says. “It’s at every point of contact that these disparities exist. That’s why we need to be a JDAI county. It won’t solve all the problems, but we’ll at least start reflecting on this data.”

Court administrators point out that the court has talked seriously with Ohio's Department of Youth Services about JDAI and has for over a decade run a number of initiatives that work to satisfy the program's eight focus points — collaboration with community partners, rigorous data collection, objective admissions criteria, alternatives to detention, case processing reforms, detention reduction, efforts to combat racial and ethnic disparities and work to improve detention conditions. The court will apply to join JDAI formally soon, and has a number of other efforts in the works — including a coming assessment center that will help connect more youth to mental health services.

In the meantime, outside Magistrate Kelley’s courtroom, Darren and his mother say they feel somewhat optimistic.

“I feel like it helps a lot,” he says of the mental health docket. “I would have been locked up a while ago without it. But I have a habit — well, not a habit. But it’s hard for me to stop. Marijuana use helps me, but at the same time, they’re trying to get me to stop. I have too much on my mind and don’t know how to cope with it all.”

Darren says he loves to cook and would eventually like to be a chef. He’s eying a program at Cincinnati State that teaches culinary arts. 

His mother generally agrees the docket has been good for Darren’s depression and ADHD.

“He does have aggression problems, and he used to cope in bad ways,” she says. “The program definitely helps. It gives him something to do that’s positive. I’m glad he got the positive side of it, and not the other side of the system.”

*CityBeat has changed the names of minors currently under adjudication 

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