Ky. locking up kids who should be treated at home

March 2, 2014 

  • About the authors: Rep. John Tilley, a Democrat, above, and Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican, both from Hopkinsville, chair the judiciary committees in their respective chambers.

As legislators representing our great commonwealth of Kentucky, we believe conserving taxpayer dollars and ensuring the best outcomes for children and families are top priorities. That's why we're advancing legislation to get better results from our juvenile justice system.

Change is long overdue.

For more than two years, a bipartisan task force has scrutinized our state's system for managing young offenders, from truants and runaways to those convicted of serious crimes.

This past year, we were privileged to serve as co-chairs of the 12-member panel, which also included representatives from government's executive and judicial branches as well as the county attorneys, probation officers, treatment providers, defense counsel and others who work in the juvenile-justice system across our state.

The task force turned up a broad range of significant findings, described in detail in a December report. But we believe three issues revealed by our evaluation should set off the loudest alarms.

The first relates to cost. Kentucky uses more than half of its $102 million Department of Juvenile Justice budget to house young offenders in residential placements. A single bed in a secure facility, such as a youth development center or detention center, costs more than $87,000 per year.

That hefty sum would cover four years of tuition at any of Kentucky's state universities, with more than $40,000 to spare.

Kentucky also spends heavily on placing "status offenders" in residential facilities — more than $6 million last year alone. These juveniles are taken from their homes and put in these facilities because of behavior problems, such as running away or skipping school, wrongdoings that would not even be crimes if committed by an adult.

We were also distressed to find that a majority of beds in Kentucky's secure youth development centers are not occupied by serious offenders but instead by those convicted of lower level crimes. Most had committed misdemeanors or had violated rules of their community supervision. Between 2002 and 2012, these less serious offenders increased substantially as a share of the overall secure population, from 39 percent to 55 percent.

Finally, our inquiry confirmed what many juvenile-justice advocates, parents, judges, defense counsel and county attorneys already knew to be true: Kentucky suffers from a shortage of juvenile community-based programs and services that allows these kids to be treated close to home. Without such local resources, judges often lack options, making a sentence to an out-of-home facility all the more likely.

As we have learned from studies around the country, taking youth from their homes and putting them in residential placements is not the answer for all young offenders, and can for certain youth actually increase the chance they will commit new crimes once released. These juveniles need different interventions that target their individual risks and needs, not only to improve their future prospects as members of our society but also to cut juvenile justice costs and reduce crime and other risky behaviors.

Our fact-finding mission was only phase one of the task force's work. Guided by research and thoughtful input from experts and committed leaders across our state, we then developed recommendations to re-frame Kentucky's juvenile justice system to produce better results for offenders, families and taxpayers alike.

In short, we propose focusing residential beds on serious offenders who need more secure placements while shifting lower-level offenders to more effective, evidence-based programs in their communities. To ensure that the reforms work, we also recommend tracking recidivism and other key performance measures.

Taking these steps would put Kentucky at the forefront of states working to improve their juvenil- justice systems. Currently, we are far behind much of the nation and this bill is an important move for our state. Many states already have made these types of reforms and are finding that it is possible to save taxpayer dollars, improve public safety, and do a more effective job of improving the lives of juvenile offenders and their families.

In 2011, our General Assembly passed legislation to improve the performance of our adult correctional system by a near-unanimous vote. It is now time to do the same so that we can improve the future of Kentucky's troubled youth.

Rep. John Tilley, a Democrat, above, and Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican, both from Hopkinsville, chair the judiciary committees in their respective chambers.

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