Ky. should reform juvenile justice, no longer jail status offenders with young criminals

March 16, 2014 

Kentucky puts way too many juvenile offenders in detention facilities and spends way too much money keeping them there.

The Department of Juvenile Justice spends more than half of its $102 million budget housing these juvenile offenders, at a per-bed cost of $100,000 a year.

But a legislative task force studying the juvenile justice system for the past two years found that less than half of the young Kentuckians occupying those beds are considered serious offenders.

And a Kentucky Youth Advocates analysis of Department of Juvenile Justice and Louisville Metro Youth Detention data found that just 3.8 percent of juveniles sent to detention facilities between 2007 and 2011 were confined for committing violent crimes such as homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault or robbery.

If less than half of the juveniles in our detention facilities are there because they are serious offenders, what did the others do that got them thrown in among the real bad apples?

Some of them committed misdemeanors. Some of them violated the terms of their probation or the rules of their community supervision. And some of them had the audacity to commit status offenses, such as skipping school or running away from home, actions that would not be considered crimes at all if adults were doing the skipping or the running away.

It makes no sense to put a young person who made a relatively minor mistake such as a misdemeanor or probation violation in one of those $100,000-per-year detention facility beds next to a more hardened juvenile offender who can teach him or her how to be a real criminal. And it defies all logic to throw a status offender into the same environment.

Senate Bill 200, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, would move Kentucky in a different direction, a more reasoned direction in its approach to juvenile justice. SB 200 is a product of the two-year study of the legislative task force co-chaired by Sen. Whitney Westerfield and Rep. John Tilley, the chairs of their respective judiciary committees.

The bill stresses earlier intervention in the lives of juvenile offenders, earlier assessment of their risks and needs and earlier access to the kind of services that could keep them from ever seeing the inside of a courtroom much less the inside of a detention facility.

While SB 200 is a worthy piece of legislation that would bring about several much-needed changes in Kentucky's approach to juvenile justice, the version of the bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would not prompt enough change in how the state deals with status offenses.

The bill still leaves open the possibility that a young person deemed to have committed such an offense could wind up in one of those $100,000-a-year beds next to a real juvenile criminal. That simply is not wise public policy.

Certainly, there may be times when status offenders need to be detained for their own good. The hypothetical example cited during committee debate Thursday involved a 14-year-old girl showing up in a truck stop parking lot to run away with the 40-year-old man she met on the Internet.

Obviously, some form of detention might be necessary in such a case, detention that gives the girl time to get the help and counseling she needs to recognize the mistake she was about to make. But this detention need not cost the state $100,000 a year, and it need not put her in an environment that enhances the likelihood she might make more, and even worse, mistakes in the future.

As SB 200 makes its way through the legislative process, lawmakers in both chambers have an opportunity to make a good piece of legislation much better by correcting its shortcomings in regard to status offenders. They should make the most of that opportunity.

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