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By Kenza Kamal, Policy Director at Juvenile Justice Coalition

It costs Ohio taxpayers $185,303 to incarcerate one child for one year. This is a staggering amount for us to spend on youth incarceration, an ineffective and harmful approach to the needs of communities in our state–particularly young Black Ohioans, who are six times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated.

Amidst this past year’s surge in grassroots organizing and Black youth-led movements, several states are planning to end the status quo and change course. Ohio’s lawmakers are currently in the process of creating our state budget for the next two years, which is an opportunity for us to shift resources from the dangerous practice of youth incarceration to community-based approaches.

This past year has made it clear that prisons are and have always been a public health crisis. Ohio’s youth prisons are notorious for having one of the highest rates of sexual victimization in the country. Last summer, one teenager was found dead in a facility shortly before he was meant to come home, in medical circumstances that are still unclear. And during the pandemic, not only have racial disparities in the juvenile justice system gotten worse, but kids have suffered inhumane conditions that mimic solitary confinement, which can hurt them developmentally, psychologically, and physically for years.

No one knows this better than Davion, who was jailed as a child for the first time at age 11 and now, as an adult, is incarcerated in an adult prison. When he found out how much money Ohio spends on locking kids up, he told me it made him “want to cry” and shared “the state has robbed me of the hundreds of thousands of dollars they spent on incarcerating me for years, which on my end I never felt like they used it in the right way.”

A recent poll shows that a vast majority of Ohioans support closing youth prisons. 81% of residents are in favor of a youth justice system focused on prevention and rehabilitation rather than punishment. This bolsters the findings of a recent Policy Matters Ohio report which outlines how we can move to a more effective, humane juvenile justice system by pursuing two solutions: directing public resources to meet families’ basic needs, and investing in community-based alternatives to youth prisons with strong local systems of support.

Over the past few decades, Ohio officials have made the state a national leader in reducing the number of incarcerated youth by shutting down juvenile correctional facilities and expanding alternative programs. However, there are still three state-run youth prisons across Ohio where hundreds of young people go without proper behavioral or mental health supports. Being incarcerated as a youth increases someone’s likelihood of ending up back in the system and stretches their punishment out across their lifetime.

Incarceration decreases a young person’s likelihood to complete formal education, creates significant employment barriers, and impacts their future earning potential and health outcomes. Since this is inflicted disproportionately on Black youth, it can contribute to racial inequality across generations. Imprisonment does not prevent future harm or violence, but can actually perpetuate it.

Ohio is ripe for a new round of change. In 2006, the state established the Behavioral Health Juvenile Justice Initiative (BHJJ) as one alternative to youth prisons by providing treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders, and its outcomes are promising. Ninety-six percent of young people enrolled in BHJJ do not return to a detention center following the program. Yet there’s a stark contrast in investment between BHJJ and youth prisons: BHJJ only costs $5,200 annually per child compared to $185,303 to incarcerate one youth.

We clearly have the funds to provide more effective, humane, community-based support, but we are spending those funds overwhelmingly on youth incarceration. State lawmakers, in partnership with local communities, can change that.

While BHJJ offers a partial solution that keeps young people out of an Ohio youth prison, it’s not enough on its own. Tackling the issues that continue to plague our juvenile justice system can only be solved by ending the practice of confining, detaining, and incarcerating children and young people.

This year, the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Ohio, in partnership with the Ohio Children’s Budget Coalition, released a budget guide offering recommendations on how state leaders can get to the root of youth incarceration and divert children from further involvement in the system. The next step is clear: Ohio lawmakers must continue the work they started almost two decades ago to divest from the harms of youth incarceration and invest in supports that work for our children and families.

Kenza Kamal is the Policy Director at Juvenile Justice Coalition, a statewide organization that works through policy advocacy and with Ohio youth and families who are at risk of involvement or involved in the juvenile court system.