Campbell District Judge Karen Thomas is developing a pilot project aimed at keeping children 10 and younger out of the criminal justice system and keeping runaways and truants who do not commit crimes out of jail.
The project will include intensive case management. Thomas said she would like to have it operating in Campbell County within six months and then duplicated in other counties.
Currently, once a complaint is filed against a child, the county attorney reviews it to see whether there is probable cause.
In some cases, children avoid getting a juvenile record by entering the Administrative Office of the Courts' diversion program, in which court-designated workers hold children accountable for their actions and provide treatment.
But often, children are referred to formal juvenile court.
Thomas said many of the children have family problems that can be addressed by forming a team of AOC workers, Cabinet for Health and Family Services social workers, school officials, and mental health professionals.
Thomas said she is hoping that money now spent on incarcerating status offenders — youth who are truants, runaways, and considered beyond control of parents or school — can instead be spent providing intensive services.
In some cases, Thomas said, the solution might be as simple as finding transportation for a family who needs to take a child to a mental health appointment.
"Kids 10 and under and status offenders have something more going on than culpability," Thomas said. "There's mental health issues and parenting issues and school issues."
With status offenders, Thomas said, "most of the time you are punishing the child for the parent's failure to parent."
Patrick Yewell, executive officer of the department of family and juvenile services for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said he is excited about the project.
"We will be working closely with Judge Thomas on developing and implementing it," Yewell said.
Thomas said she had not seen a final version of state Rep. Darryl Owens' legislation that would prohibit children younger than 11 being charged with a crime and allow them to be treated as a neglected or dependent child. But Thomas said she thinks House Bill 143 could work in conjunction with the pilot program.