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Reforming Juvenile Justice

How the Schubert Center for Child Studies helped achieve major policy changes in Ohio

By Anastasia Pantsios (GRS ’71)

Published in spring 2013

On June 15, 2011, Gabriella Celeste, director of child policy at Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, testified in Columbus before the Senate Judiciary-Criminal Justice Committee. The state budget process was just winding up. So was work on HB 86, a package of criminal sentencing reforms.

Celeste’s interest was in how this legislation would affect kids in the legal system. And what she put in front of lawmakers was policy-relevant research: hard facts that demonstrated that changes in current practices would lead to better results and lower costs.

Two weeks after the committee hearing, the Ohio Senate passed HB 86 by a wide margin. Approval of the budget bill, HB 153, soon followed. Both measures, promptly signed by Governor John Kasich, included significant juvenile justice reforms, among the most far-reaching in the country.

The reforms’ main goal was to reduce the population in state juvenile correctional facilities and support more cost-effective community-based approaches. HB 86 expanded the power of judges to grant early release to juvenile offenders, even those serving mandatory sentences. It allowed some kids bound over to adult courts to return to the juvenile system. It also reduced automatic sentences for several categories of crimes.

Other provisions were designed to improve how the state responds to the needs of young people in its custody. For instance, HB 86 created a task force to recommend changes in the care provided to kids with mental illness. Finally, lawmakers agreed to invest in effective alternatives to incarceration. HB 153 gave priority to funding community-based programs that use evidence-based practices—approaches to treatment and rehabilitation that have been shown to work.

“Prior to the passage of HB 86, Ohio legislators, like those in many other states, focused on passing increasingly punitive policies with little or no consideration of principles of child and adolescent development and what research suggests works best for this population,” Celeste wrote last year in a report published by the Schubert Center. The dramatic policy shift was a victory for a coalition of researchers, practitioners and reform advocates whose model for achieving change will be emulated, Celeste hopes, in future reform efforts.

Reform partners say that Celeste and the Schubert Center made a critical contribution by assembling data and formulating arguments that lawmakers and other public officials found persuasive.

“Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the ambitious reform agenda being accomplished if it weren’t for the center and Gabriella’s leadership role—her credentials and reputation as an honest broker of good research, their expertise and interdisciplinary perspective, and the collaborative way in which they work,” says Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which funds policy change efforts in Ohio and other states.

Along with her expertise, Celeste brought to the campaign her passion for humane and sensible juvenile justice policies.

“I have 10- and 11-year-old boys,” she says. “It’s remarkable to me that we have had an approach to kids that is so separate from what common sense and experience tell us, and research supports, about how to raise caring, successful adults.”

Laying the Groundwork

Celeste grew up in a political family where social justice and policy matters were regular fodder for dinner table debates. She earned her law degree from the University of Michigan in 1996, after spending several years doing applied research for a California firm working with nonprofit and government organizations focused on vulnerable children and families. After reading a New York Times article about the appalling treatment of kids in the New Orleans legal system, the Rust Belt native headed south to co-found the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. She spent the next seven years filing lawsuits to win changes in that state’s juvenile justice system.

Celeste belonged to a reform movement that was reacting against a wave of “tough on crime” bills passed in the 1990s. Media scare stories about youthful “superpredators” who were beyond rehabilitation had provoked harsh laws. Forty-seven states had increased sentences for juvenile offenders, and children were languishing in often violent juvenile prisons with little or no treatment. At the same time, increasing numbers of young people were being tried as adults and sent to adult prisons.

Eventually, Celeste concluded that lawsuits alone couldn’t bring about large-scale changes in the juvenile justice system; advocates also had to get involved in the policymaking process. After successfully working on major reform legislation in Louisiana, she returned to Ohio in 2004 and began developing public-private partnerships to address a range of child-related issues. She joined the Schubert Center in 2009.

By late 2010, it was clear that changes in Ohio’s sentencing policies were on the horizon. The recession had left state finances in tatters, and Kasich, the incoming governor, was looking for ways to save money. Given the high cost of incarcerating criminals, coupled with the costs of an ongoing lawsuit challenging the way kids are treated in juvenile correctional facilities, the state had a strong incentive to reduce its prison population and enact other reforms.

With support from the National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems, whose funders include the MacArthur Foundation and the George Gund Foundation, proponents of juvenile justice reform organized quickly to ensure that their concerns would be addressed in any new legislation. In December 2010, former state Supreme Court Justices Evelyn Stratton and Yvette McGee Brown invited people with a stake in reform to a meeting in Columbus. Participants included juvenile court judges and public defenders, treatment providers, advocates and funders.

“It wasn’t just a meet-and-greet,” Celeste recalls. “It was a brainstorming of issues and ideas. The purpose of the meeting was to hear from consultants close to the Kasich administration about what might be politically feasible and to discuss potential key elements of a reform agenda.”

The Schubert Center, with funding from the National Campaign, became part of a core team responsible for articulating a focused policy agenda and a viable strategy to achieve reform. In collaboration with the Children’s Law Center, the Juvenile Justice Coalition, the Office of the Ohio Public Defender and other researchers, the center collected and analyzed data about what worked and what didn’t in the juvenile justice system, assessed the costs of various options and formulated evidence-based reform proposals. The National Campaign also provided resources to hire lobbyists who would help Celeste and her colleagues gain access to legislators and make the case for reform.

Celeste accepted the role of policy content expert for the Ohio campaign with the support of Schubert Center director Jill Korbin.

“Gabriella’s background and expertise, and the extraordinary qualities of those with whom she collaborated, resulted in enhancements to the well-being of some of our most hard-to-reach young people,” says Korbin, professor of anthropology and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We often speak of our desire to bridge research, practice and policy, but it’s very difficult to do. This is an example of such an accomplishment, brought about by the hard work of many dedicated individuals.”

A Narrative for Change

Gabriella Celeste and one of her collaborators, the Mandel School’s Patrick Kanary, have testified before state legislators about juvenile justice reform and youth violence prevention. Photo by Mike Sands.

Gabriella Celeste and one of her collaborators, the Mandel School’s Patrick Kanary, have testified before state legislators about juvenile justice reform and youth violence prevention. Photo by Mike Sands.

Recognizing that cost was an overriding concern to both the governor and the legislature, the Schubert Center and its partners presented evidence that alternatives to incarceration were both cheaper and more effective in helping juvenile offenders turn their lives around. In 2011, keeping a youth in a correctional facility cost nearly $125,000 a year. In contrast, placing a youth in a community-based treatment program cost $7,500 to $9,000 a year.

“The cost of incarcerating three kids for a year would pay for the start-up cost of an intensive home-based program that could serve 42 kids a year,” says Patrick Kanary, one of Celeste’s university collaborators. Kanary directs the Center for Innovative Practices at the Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Violence Prevention Research and Education Center in the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

Kanary adds that he didn’t get much of the expected pushback about dangerous youth running loose in communities.

“I think people are recognizing that while incarceration may have its place for a certain group of kids, we are able to be more successful than we ever thought we could be with serving kids in a community setting,” he says.

In meetings with legislators and in public testimony, Celeste and her colleagues also cited scientific research to support their policy proposals. For instance, they pointed out that during adolescence, the part of the brain that controls decision-making and risk assessment isn’t fully developed. This doesn’t mean that adolescents shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, Celeste says. But reformers did argue that young people in the legal system should have protections and opportunities beyond those accorded to adults.

Research also shows that peer groups strongly influence adolescents’ social and emotional development. For this reason, Celeste says, locking kids up with other offenders—especially adult offenders—makes it less likely that they will make positive changes in their behavior.

“You can talk about being tough on kids, but if you don’t intervene in smart ways, you’re likely to just make them tougher criminals,” Celeste says. Pointing to the state’s own data, she told legislators that among young people released from Ohio’s correctional facilities, 50 percent commit new crimes within three years. “So you’re spending millions of dollars and not seeing a huge impact on recidivism. We all lose.”

Kanary witnessed the effects of such arguments. After he testified one day, he recalls, “One legislator said, ‘As a businessman, I understand paying attention to outcome and quality assurance.’ It was a nice validation of the way in which we had framed the issue.”

“Our task was not scolding legislators but making it easier for them to access key findings from studies and highlight what’s most relevant for kids in the system,” Celeste adds. “We helped make data part of the narrative for change.”

A Continuing Campaign

The reform advocates didn’t get everything they asked for. For instance, they had hoped to see mandatory sentencing eliminated entirely for young offenders. “We have a host of literature that calls for an individualized approach to sentencing for kids,” Celeste explains. “That’s always been one of the hallmarks of the juvenile justice system. Mandatory sentencing completely undermines that hallmark.” But the reformers couldn’t secure enough votes to end the practice.

Celeste also notes that in the days leading up to the Senate vote, there were intensive negotiations about the competency age—the age at which kids are deemed capable of understanding and participating in legal proceedings.

“Key leadership on the Senate committee was fully prepared to have 12 be the age of presumed competency,” Celeste recalls. “After considerable discussion, in which we cited adolescent development and competency research, we were able to have that age raised from 12 to 14 in the final draft of the bill. We actually sought to have 16 as the cutoff, but given the political reality, 14 was where the line was drawn.”

Even with such compromises, Celeste says that the extent of the policy shift in 2011 was remarkable. It was the first time in almost 20 years that the Ohio General Assembly had supported positive juvenile justice reforms. And of the 16 states where the National Campaign has recently invested in reform efforts, Ohio adopted the most significant changes.

Now, two-and-a-half years into what was designed as a year-to-year project, many of those who took part in the campaign continue to work for additional improvements to the juvenile justice system. For instance, the task force created by HB 86 to assess mental health services for incarcerated youth has issued its recommendations, and the reformers want to make sure they are implemented.

“It takes a real investment of time and commitment to get these things done,” Celeste says. “While I think the Schubert Center has played a fundamental role, a foundation built over years of advocacy and work by those in the field was essential. We had a truly collaborative campaign team made up of talented partners who were tenacious in advancing real change for kids.”

Anastasia Pantsios is a freelance writer.

To download A Bridge to Somewhere: How Research Made Its Way into Legislative Juvenile Justice Reform in Ohio, by Gabriella Celeste (Schubert Center for Child Studies, 2012), please visit “Featured Resources” at

Page last modified: February 9, 2017