Following the settlement of a federal class action suit in 2008, the Ohio Department of Youth Services has been under court orders to overhaul the housing, treatment, care and rehabilitation of youth offenders in state custody. The process is overseen by a court-appointed monitor and his team to ensure compliance with the wide-ranging requirements of the settlement. It is heartening that a recent report by the monitor notes the department has made significant progress, even achieving the status of a national model in some aspects of juvenile detention. The successes should serve to spur quicker resolution of the “ongoing deficiencies” identified in the report.

The lawsuit against the state, originally filed in 2004, alleged systemic failures in the correctional facilities, from poor housing conditions and security to staff abuses, excessive use of force and seclusion and inadequate provisions for educational, medical and mental health services. The state agreed in the settlement not only to address these problems but also to provide treatment and services in “the least restrictive setting” that best serves the individual needs of juvenile offenders.

Among the priorities, the shift from large, rather impersonal institutions to more community-based treatment and rehabilitation options, which keep low-risk offenders closer to home, is a positive change, reducing the population in DYS facilities to fewer than 500 as of last month.

Behavioral and mental health care is an acute and growing problem in the youth detention facilities and a priority concern in the settlement. In January 2008, roughly 33 percent of the DYS population were on the mental health caseload. By January 2012, the number had reached 57 percent. In this aspect, too, reviews indicate the department is making significant strides in improving services and outcomes, among other steps employing evidence-based best practices in screening and assessments, increasing clinical staffing and training.

But as the monitor’s report indicates, much work remains ahead, both systemwide and in the individual correctional facilities. For example, funding for in-patient care or alternative placement for juveniles with serious mental illnesses and disorders remains a systemwide challenge. Other problems are pronounced in specific locales, such as gang violence and a high use of physical restraints at the Indian River facility in Stark County and “disturbing patterns” of excessive use of seclusion in Circleville. With a federal court holding it accountable, Ohio has moved in the right direction and should stay on the path.