FRANKFORT — Fewer children would be jailed in Kentucky under a wide-ranging bill overhauling the state's juvenile justice system approved Thursday by a Senate committee.
The bill aims to reduce the incarceration of children younger than 18 charged with noncriminal "status" offenses, such as skipping school or running away from home.
Some judges now sentence such nonviolent offenders to detention centers, where they are housed with young people who have committed serious crimes. In 2010, for example, 1,541 youths were locked up in Kentucky for status offenses.
The sponsor of Senate Bill 200, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said the proposal represents the most significant changes in juvenile justice in Kentucky in decades. It is based on recommendations made last year by a task force headed by Westerfield and House Judiciary chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville.
SB 200 could save the state as much as $24 million over five years by placing more juveniles in community-based treatment instead of putting them in detention centers, Westerfield said. The state could reinvest the savings to expand community-based programs for status offenders, he said.
"This shift away from out-of-home placement to community programs will lead to safer communities and better outcomes for Kentucky youth and their families," Westerfield said.
He said the length of time children spend in detention centers is about the same as felony offenders. For example, the time spent in out-of-home facilities by violators of court orders increased 31 percent over the past decade, according to a report by the task force released in December.
The Department of Juvenile Justice spends more than half of its $102 million annual budget on secure and nonsecure residential facilities that cost an average of $87,000 per bed per year, the task force found. In addition, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services spent an estimated $6 million in fiscal year 2012 for out-of-home placement of status offenders.
The state doesn't have data on how often juvenile offenders repeatedly break the law, but the reforms in SB 200 are projected to reduce the department's "out-of-home" population of juvenile offenders by a third, Westerfield said.
Youth convicted of misdemeanors and violators of court orders make up the majority — ranging from 55 to 87 percent — of those in the state's out-of-home placements, according to the task force report.
The legislation would limit the length of out-of-home placements and the length of court supervision based on the seriousness of an offense and the risk to re-offend. The juvenile justice department would develop case plans to determine the length of out-of-home placements.
Also, the bill would require increased data collection on juvenile offenders and a state system to track juvenile recidivism rates. An oversight council would be formed to manage implementation of the bill.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the bill "makes great strides" toward focusing costly incarcerations and other out-of-home placements on only the most serious offenses.
The bill "emphasizes investing limited state dollars in community-based programs that are more effective at getting youth back on track," Brooks said.
He said too many educators "cling to antiquated means of dealing with youth who miss school — namely insisting that the threat of incarceration be used.
Schools were involved in 59 percent of the status complaints and one-quarter of public offense complaints reviewed by the task force.
"We know that locking up kids for behaviors that would not be considered crimes if they were adults doesn't work, and it's the most expensive option," Brooks said. "It's time for schools to become a part of the solution."
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved SB 200 on an 8-1 vote. Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, cast the only vote against the measure. Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, passed.
The measure now goes to the full Senate for its consideration.