Herald-Leader Editorial

Take step to open juvenile courts; but change bill's restrictions on reporting

March 18, 2014 

Kentucky's children and families stand to gain the most from opening juvenile court proceedings to public view.

As Jefferson County Family Court Judge Paula Sherlock told a legislative committee two years ago, "closed courts just protect failed systems."

The confidentiality that cloaks juvenile courts is rooted in compassion and progressive ideas from the past.

Juvenile proceedings were closed to protect youngsters' privacy and also to protect them from being forever tarred by a youthful mistake.

That long tradition of confidentiality is why it makes sense to begin opening juvenile courts through a few pilot projects in places where local officials want to give it a try.

Senate Bill 157, which cleared the Senate on a 30-7 vote, would create that opportunity in three to seven judicial districts over the next four years.

Not all juvenile cases would be open; those involving alleged sexual abuse or minor crimes would be closed, and judges would have discretion to close other cases depending on circumstances.

But in the pilot districts the public would generally have access to proceedings involving dependency, neglect and abuse; termination of parental rights; and crimes involving juveniles 14 or older that would be felonies if committed by adults.

This would shed useful light on a child-protection system that has unaccountably failed too many children.

The House should support SB 157, with a couple of changes.

The bill attempts to impose unacceptable restraints on what can be reported about the newly opened proceedings. It even allows judges to inspect notes taken by observers, including reporters, and limits public access to pertinent documents.

Besides the serious constitutional concerns about censorship, these restrictions negate the purpose of the pilot projects, which should be to bring the positive effects of sunshine to a system that has suffered in the dark.

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