The Judge Who Helped Make Toledo Juvenile Justice Ready for Primetime

Last monthVice put juvenile justice front and center with a one-hour HBO documentary hosted by Michael K. Williams, star of the network’s acclaimed series “The Wire.”

The special – Raised in the System – uses Lucas County, Ohio, as a primary example of a system trying to reduce the use of incarceration in working with juvenile offenders, limiting lockup to only the cases involving very high-risk youth.

Denise Cubbon
Denise Cubbon, lead judge of the Lucas County, Ohio juvenile court

At the helm of that reform has been Judge Denise Navarre Cubbon, lead judge for the county’s juvenile and child welfare courts. Cubbon was elected in 2004, and became the head of the juvenile court in 2007. Since then, she has run point on developing a continuum that puts a number of youth development-oriented options between probation and the state’s youth prisons.

“Judge Cubbon and her team consistently lead from their beliefs that community safety is best achieved by focusing on long-term outcomes for youth, which means minimizing the use of detention and out-of-home placement, and that the juvenile justice system cannot, and should not, do it alone – it must invest in and partner with families and community organizations,” said Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Faced with a juvenile detention population that reached 100-some days, the county joined the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which employs the use of risk assessment instruments to lower reliance on detention centers before trial.

Cubbon, a member of the board of trustees for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, was then instrumental in the development of an array of intervention points aimed at working with more offenders in the community.

The county assessment center routes low-risk and many first-time delinquents toward diversion programs and monitoring that can prevent a criminal record. Other youth are referred to Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), a nonprofit contractor that provides professional mentors who enable the county to keep some serious offenders safely at home instead of behind bars.

The county also operates a youth treatment center, a 32-bed facility in Toledo that focuses on family involvement, therapy and academic acceleration. Few offenders from Lucas County end up in the larger youth prisons operated by the Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS) – only repeat serious offenders and older teenagers.

A recent high-profile homicide case could prove to be a referendum on the deep end of the county’s treatment center. Four teens – two aged 13, one 14 and one 15 – threw a heavy sandbag off a highway overpass, which inadvertently hit and killed 22-year-old Marquise Byrd, a passenger in a moving car.

Cubbon, facing pressure to commit the youth to the state for the maximum allowable sentence, chose to remand them to the treatment center.

Judge Cubbon sat down with The Chronicle of Social Change to discuss the county’s juvenile justice reforms, how the opioid epidemic has impacted child welfare, and what comes next after she hangs up her robe.

It’s not every day HBO comes to town to film something about juvenile justice. How did this all come about?

Nate Balis [head of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation]. I know he made the suggestion. HBO spent a week here, then a small team came back and spent a couple more days.

They were good about, ‘We’re not gonna use these kids. We’re going to treat them with respect.’

They really came and just sat in my courtroom. I didn’t plan anything, I did not kick any cases. Just, ‘This is my docket, every day.’

They couldn’t film faces unless kids and parents agreed. The kids knew after the first day that HBO was here. Well, let’s be honest, they knew that Omar was here.

[The Vice documentary was hosted by Michael K. Williams, who played the infamous robber-of-drug-dealers Omar on the HBO series “The Wire.”]

I wanted them to see our youth treatment center, I really wanted them to see YAP, to see our assessment center. And to talk to parents, as well as kids.

What did you think of the piece?

I started watching. I was, like, totally blown away, I had to turn it off.

I told them, ‘I’m so overwhelmed to think you young professionals came here to our community, and you got it. You understood how important it was.’

The assessment center, they got how important it was. They really cared enough about the topic and those kids, that they took time, learned, listened.

It starts out, which I loved, with me committing a kid to DYS for a maximum sentence. This kid, Eric, he knew. He knew he was going! That’s the reality.

Is it safe to say that you use DYS when you can’t do anything else?

Correct. And that has to be the trend across the country. Detention and incarceration will always be the default if we don’t develop our systems.

You can’t expect a judge to protect a community and have no alternatives. There are public safety and services. But if it’s public safety or nothing, they’ll always take safety.

This case with the four teens who killed Marquise Byrd looks like it will be a very public test of how your local services perform. What went into your decision to commit them to a shorter county program, as opposed to committing them to the state?

I called DYS, I said, ‘give me some information.’

As of April 2, they had 510 kids. Look at the ages: two 13-year-olds, eight 14-year-olds, 38 15-year-olds [the other 462 youths were 16 or older]. Our kids, most that are at DYS are there on mandatory sentences. And the average age is 18.

So I’m going to put little kids with no record there? That was one of the reasons. Why expose them to a lifestyle they’d be encapsulated by?

Number two is, they were low-risk offenders. The parents were supporting them in the best way they could. And they’re in grade school!

What will their day or week be like at the treatment center?

They’re going to school, have cognitive behavioral therapy. If they have mental health needs that can’t be met on grounds, they’ll go to a service provider in the community. And there is active participation insisted upon by the parents.

Has Lucas County been hit hard, like many other places, by the rise in opioid and heroin use?

The opioid epidemic is killing everyone. We have families stepping up, but they’re being squeezed to step up.

We have a woman right now, a grandma from Lima, Ohio, who’s going to come here with hopes of taking children home. This person I’m talking about, she will be able to step up and provide for the kids, and retain counsel. But she’s clearly the exception to rule.

Do you think the Family First Act is going to be an asset for you?

I’m on the board of directors of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. We support that legislation, but there are states that are going crazy over it because of the issues around congregate care, the limitations. That’s a philosophical thing but, also, our states are all different. The states that are kind of freaking out over it, I don’t know what their requirements are.

I’m thinking of California, actually. Because they have done a lot of work developing their congregate care. They may have done the hard work, for all I know. For us, in Ohio, this helps us because we haven’t had the ability to have IV-E reimbursement on the family stuff.

I think the counties here that drove alternative response are going to be like, ‘Let’s go, we’re getting IV-E dollars!’ They’ll be all on top of that.

How about on the juvenile justice side of the court, are opioids coming into the picture a lot with delinquency cases?

A lot of people think that as it’s impacting adults, it’s impacting the kids, by usage. We don’t find that to be the case. I’m not saying we don’t have any opioid users; I’m saying it has not impacted the kids that we see to the extent that we need any additional services.

I’d say our kids have issues with chronic marijuana usage, and I wish more people would stand up and say our kids should not be smoking marijuana.

But opioid addiction is impacting our ability to provide adequate services for kids, when parents or family members are actively using opioids and heroin. It’s more on the child welfare side, the support system for the kids in the juvenile justice system.

Judge Denise Dubbon
Judge Cubbon, testifying about juvenile justice reform at a hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Do you think it is appropriate to transfer youth into the adult system, and if so, what is the right criteria?

I can’t answer that question.

You can’t?

I’m a judge, I enforce the laws. There’s [transfer] laws, I have to follow the law.

I raise my hand, I swear to uphold the laws of the state of Ohio. We have motions binding kids over. I have to follow the law when the motion is before me.

Do you have any sense of the outcomes for kids who are transferred in Lucas County, what happens to them?

No. Absolutely not. I lose jurisdiction the moment the [transfer] motion is granted.

How has the intersection of school discipline and juvenile justice changed in your time in the field?

Hugely. In the beginning of my practice in the juvenile prosecutor’s office, we incarcerated kids for school misbehavior regularly. I have to say this: It was all well-intentioned. We didn’t have the research, didn’t have the information, and we didn’t have the data we do now.

Lots of kids were up in detention. We’d have 75 to 100, that’s crazy. We thought we were protecting the community. [The current detention population is about 30.]

We were looking at JDAI [Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative], looking at disproportionality, and asking, what was the most common offense that kids went up to the detention center for?

It was violating the Safe School Act … fighting, or disorderly conduct. [Mostly] African-American boys. So how can we target just that population to improve disproportionality?

When we were trying to figure things out, we knew we had to do something like an assessment center. We had heard about the Miami-Dade Assessment Center, how that could really meet our needs.

So we changed our risk assessment tool, and also had an honest conversation with schools and law enforcement.

When we made the decision to have an assessment center, those kids were eligible for diversion by virtue of coming in that door. That’s probably the best thing we ever did, was the assessment center, to be honest.

Did I hear correctly that you’re retiring soon?

At the end of December, 2020. I could run again, but I’m moving on.

I’m excited for it, to be honest. The reason I tell people I’m leaving is so people think about, ‘Oh, maybe that’s something I’d like to do someday.’

Have you thought about if and how you would stay involved in child welfare or juvenile justice?

I’ve been thinking about some things I’d like to do. I’m not going to be a visiting judge; if I was, I’d just stay on the bench.

I started my career doing advocacy, then I was a prosecutor. It would be kind of fun to finish it doing advocacy.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 961 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.

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