A Lexington lawmaker has prefiled legislation for the 2012 General Assembly that aims to reduce the number of incarcerations of young people who skip school, habitually run away or misbehave but don't commit criminal acts.
The legislation from state Rep. Kelly Flood, a Democrat, deals with status offenses, generally defined as misconduct that would not be illegal if committed by an adult.
Child advocates in Kentucky have been concerned for years about the number of status offenders placed in detention.
In 2010, there were 1,541 bookings of youth in Kentucky into juvenile detention facilities for status offenses, accounting for 18.5 percent of all young people who were incarcerated, according to officials at Kentucky Youth Advocates. The 2010 numbers were higher in Fayette County, where 181 bookings, or 25.6 percent, at juvenile detention facilities were for status offenses.
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Flood said status offenders are most often teenagers but can be children 12 and younger "who make choices that are wrong but not criminal."
Currently, young people may be picked up on warrants for violating court orders that could have been issued years before, Flood said.
Even when a child has not committed a crime, a family court judge may issue a court order imposing conditions on them for not following rules. Habitual runaways may be placed in detention if they violate court orders that require them to have no unexcused school absences, to obey school and family rules, and not to run away.
Flood's bill puts limits on court orders for status offenses, so that they expire within a certain time.
Under the legislation, status offenders no longer would be held in secure juvenile detention facilities before their cases are heard in court.
Under Flood's bill, a judge making a decision about a young person would get much more information about the youth and the allegation, including what social services had been attempted with the child and family.
"The underlying causes for status offenses are usually due to problems at home and school, and are often signs of not-yet identified trauma and or mental health needs of young people," Flood said. "This is the kind of information judges need — and that my bill provides — when facing status offenders and their families in courts."
Kentucky Youth Advocates is among the groups supporting the bill.
"Locking up kids for things like skipping school or running away from home is not only ineffective at helping them become productive community members but very expensive," said Tara Grieshop-Goodwin, deputy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. "Legislative changes are needed to ensure we are using our resources wisely in a way that holds kids accountable and puts them on the right path."
Flood filed a similar bill for the 2011 legislative session. It was passed by the House of Representatives but did not get a hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee.
But Flood said she is encouraged that two meetings on the incarceration of status offenders have been held by the bipartisan Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary in preparation the 2012 session.
State Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, co-chair of the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary, said there is a sentiment in the General Assembly to address a number of juvenile justice issues in 2012. That includes the incarceration of status offenders and whether criminal complaints should be filed against children 10 and younger.
"Everyone understands that we have to do something to decrease the number of juveniles we are detaining for status offenses," said Tilley.