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Next 400: Racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. “Is the system designed to treat all who enter it throughout the process consistently, fairly, equally?”

Updated: Dec. 4, 2020 at 7:14 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Israel Tabler was just 11 years old when he was first sent to juvenile detention. He said he was “really just getting in trouble with school” in the beginning. Tabler was first charged with truancy. At 24, he’s just finished a six-year prison sentence as an adult for aggravated robbery. He said he’s now determined to make it his last, after being in and out of juvenile detention as a kid.

He said he thinks he was ultimately given a fair shake after getting in trouble so many times but added, if given a chance, in the beginning, his life in and out of the system may have ended much sooner.

“I go in there, and I come back home, and it’s the same pattern, the same environment, and that’s all I know. So, how can I change if nothing different is changing around me,” he said.

Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Mike Ryan said it’s a challenge he faces as a judge, “how do we change them, so they aren’t committing these same types of offenses as adults?”

Judge Ryan said the majority of the kids coming to his courtroom are from Cleveland – and Black. When he started as a judge almost a decade ago, he realized the biggest problem they faced is they didn’t have the same community diversion opportunities as those in other cities and suburbs. “We had to change that to ensure, ‘ok, who’s doing the assessments and allowing kids into the diversion program?’ Whoever’s doing it for Cleveland wasn’t giving a same fair opportunity,” said Judge Ryan.

He said he grew up in “grew up in the same neighborhoods they’re coming from.” He said he could’ve easily ended up on the other side of the bench.

He said, “I knew the justice center because I visited so many family members who were incarcerated, I said, ‘I’ve got to do something different.”

Studies show in Cuyahoga County, 42% of youth ages 10-17 are Black. However, they make up 90% of the institutionalized population, which is almost 12 times more than white youth. It’s a trend, the report shows, continues in the adult criminal justice system.

“We turn on the news every night, and we see disproportionate treatment of those going through the system based upon race and so forth,” said Ian Friedman with Friedman & Nemecek, L.L.C. Attorneys at Law in Cleveland.

Friedman said it’s a problem he sees far too often. “Two people who commit the same crime under similar circumstances should not walk out of a courtroom with different types of sentences.”

Both he and Ryan said leveling the playing field requires a change in almost every corner of the system.

“It really permeates all facets of it from police interaction, to how things are charged, to how things are processed through the system, to issues of bond and sentencing, how do judges run today; tough on crime.”

He says there should be data collection of sentencing to ensure consistency. But he added it’s also important to recognize when some children have opportunities to succeed and some, like Tablar, do not.

Tablar said, “At first, I didn’t think I got a fair shake because I didn’t really understand, but I don’t know if anyone really gets a fair shake.”

Friedman said the real question is, “is the system designed to treat all who enter it throughout the process consistently, fairly, equally? That’s the question, and until all aspects are done so, it will not work the way it should.” He said, “it’s easy to look the other way when it happens five counties away, but what if that were your child being treated unfairly?”

He said it’s circumstances like this he sees handicap kids going into the system off the bat, regardless of the judge, prosecutor, or defense attorney. “One child who goes through the system unfairly has an exponentially greater chance of living in that system as an adult. So, if we are to stop the cycle, we have to stop it early on when children are really able to be rehabilitated.”

Judge Ryan said he’s seen the numbers improving. “I’ve seen evidence of the change because 2017, we had probably about 2,200 juveniles from the city of Cleveland charged with an official action in our court and now in 2019, it’s down to 1,297. “He said the significant decrease is largely due to community diversion programs and early intervention. “We saw that if we can get them those services, we can avoid further contact with the juvenile justice system.”

What hasn’t changed, said Ryan, is the number of young African Americans committed to the Ohio Department of Youth Services. He said Cuyahoga County sent 107 in 2019, almost the same number as two years prior.

According to the Sentencing Project, Ohio is one of 14 states to see increased racial disparities between white and minority juveniles.

“You have to understand the stories that are going on and look at kids going through the system. How would I feel if that were my kid? And when you take on that sort of viewpoint, then change can really get underway,” said Friedman.

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