CLEVELAND, Ohio Jan 18 2018 — Last week’s riot at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center spotlighted the stark reality that a rising number of inmates there are in custody for violent crimes — including armed robbery, carjacking and homicide.
Two of the 12 inmates involved in the fight that caused an estimated $200,000 in damage to the detention center are accused in the killing of a 12-year-old boy outside his father’s beauty supply store, and eight others are charged with armed robbery, officials said.
The inmates’ charges offer a snapshot of what law enforcement officials, prosecutors and community groups have identified as an increase in violent crimes involving juveniles. That’s particularly evident at the detention center, where more and more violent offenders have created a volatile atmosphere, Cuyahoga County Michael O’Malley said.
“The reality is that facility has a high concentration of inmates charged with aggravated murder or murder,” O’Malley said. “The reality is, if that was an adult facility, it would need to be a ‘supermax’ facility. It’s certainly a much higher level of crime than [adults] who are housed at the county jail.”
The uptick has created a conundrum for a justice system historically focused on rehabilitating young offenders rather than punishing them, namely, how should the justice system balance that goal with the need to protect the public?
The riot sparked calls for reform of the detention center. One suggestion is to allow the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department to assume management of the facility, which is currently run by juvenile court judges.
O’Malley and area police chiefs understand that the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court should focus on rehabilitating young offenders, but they are also faced with the reality that serious nature of the crimes in which many of these young offenders are accused.
“I think the system is set up to recognize that they’re kids, and the preference is taking the least punitive action to correct the behavior,” South Euclid police Chief Kevin Nietert said. “I think that probably works in most cases. But the reality is that, with some of the people committing these serious crimes, that type of approach doesn’t work.”
What complicates the issue further, in O’Malley’s view, is the fact many of the most serious cases involve teenagers with lengthy criminal records, and the punitive action to correct the behavior often involves releasing defendants from the detention center sooner than adults charged with similar crimes.
“They’ve had interactions with the [justice] system before and they’re indifferent to the consequences,” he said. “We have to work with the court to make sure those initial interactions [with the justice system] are meaningful. If the rehabilitation lacks substance, then you’re just wasting your time.”
The issue will be at the forefront as communities see more violent crimes involving juveniles. While final statistics are not yet available for 2017, officials believe more teenagers are being charged in cases involving gun-related offenses.
The Cleveland Heights Police Department, for example, arrested 20 juveniles — mostly teenage boys — last year and charged them with carjacking. The South Euclid Police Department arrested a 16-year-old boy and an 18-year-old man Nov. 15 following a bank robbery that involved a fake bomb.
“I certainly think that there is a perception that there is in increase in the amount of serious juvenile offenses recently,” Nietert said.
Nearby communities have seen teenagers commit violent crimes, too. University Heights and Bedford detectives each investigated one armed robbery involving a teenager in 2017, and the Euclid Police Department arrested a teen last year for a carjacking that happened in 2016, records provided by the three police departments show.
The Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, which mediates disputes and mentors at-risk teenagers and young adults, feels gangs and the prevalence of guns on the streets are fueling the violence, director Sharyna Cloud said.
Some teens are driven to crime because they do not feel valued at home, in schools or in the job market, said Mike Walker, the executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for a Safer Cleveland.
“They all have a concern that they are invisible, and that they don’t count,” Walker said. “They are always perceived to be the problem.”
The alliance works to address the issue by hosting community forums and embedding violence interrupters – workers trained to defuse conflict between people aiming to do harm to each other – in neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland, which oversees the alliance, also offers programs such as Pathway to Resilience, a career-training program that combines instruction with extracurricular activities such as athletics and music.
“Exposure to gangs shouldn’t be your opportunity,” Cloud said. “There are other opportunities without having to go that route.”
Officials and community groups believe the rise in violent crimes involving juveniles can be traced to a few “bad apples” in a neighborhood. But their actions amplify the problem by causing other teens and young adults to feel unsafe.
Some teens are carrying guns because they do not feel safe.
“If you have a conversation with young people, they’re going to say they don’t feel safe,” Walker said. “There’s a preponderance of feeling they’re not safe anywhere.”
One way communities can reduce violent crime is by preventing retaliation, Cloud said. The Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance works to prevent teens affected by violent crimes from seeking revenge, she said.
The alliance has these violence interrupters at the MetroHeath and University Hospital emergency rooms to help victims and their families avoid more violence. The alliance is also working to put more outreach workers on the streets.
“It’s a large-scale effort, but we are up for the challenge,” Cloud said. “We don’t want to see another uptick in violence this year.”
Peace in the Hood, a Cleveland organization that is also known as the Coalition for a Better Life, believes teens will avoid violence if they are pushed toward educational and work opportunities instead of gangs, co-founder Khalid Samah said.
“They can be in control of themselves,” Samah said. “They can be disciplined and be responsible.”
Many communities have diversion programs for juveniles who are charged with misdemeanor offenses. In Cleveland Heights and Bedford, for example, the police departments uses diversion programs to prevent low-level offenders from committing future crimes.
“I believe [our diversion program] has been very successful,” Cleveland Heights police Chief Annette Mecklenburg said. “We reach these kids at an early age before they commit serious crimes, and show them the consequences of the choices they make.”
Mecklenburg has been in contact with several nearby police departments and hopes law enforcement agencies can work with the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court to develop strategies to address violence among juveniles. O’Malley acknowledged the rise in violent juvenile offenders is an ongoing issue that needs attention in order to keep neighborhoods safe.
“It’s unfortunate neighborhoods are being destroyed because a small group of kids have made the decision they want to terrify these neighborhoods,” he said. “It certainly seems much worse today than it did years ago.”