Politics & Government

Officials look for ways to help young status offenders

In June, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that a 15-year-old Jessamine County girl should not have been jailed in 2009 for allegedly missing several days of school and for not following court-ordered conditions from a previous case.

Child advocacy groups and state agencies in Kentucky are trying to limit the incarceration of those under 18 for non-criminal misbehaviors such as skipping school, habitually running away, and using cigarettes or alcohol.

Now state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said she is drafting legislation aimed at curbing the number of young people jailed for what are called status offenses — misconduct that is not criminal and would not be illegal if committed by an adult.

In 2009, 1,746 young people in Kentucky were locked up for status offenses, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all young people who were incarcerated, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates. The 2009 numbers were even higher in Fayette County, where 27.5 percent of children jailed were status offenders, officials with the advocacy group said.

Kentucky ranked second only to Washington state in the number of status offenders jailed in 2007. The federal government used 2007 statistics, the most recent available, to make 2010 funding decisions for Kentucky.

"Children who are charged with status offenses do not belong in a jail cell next to youth who have committed serious acts," Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a statement. "These are children who need attention to the underlying problems that are causing them to act out, and need opportunities to learn from their mistakes so they can make a successful transition into adulthood."

Even when a child has not committed a crime, a family court judge can issue a court order imposing conditions on them for not following rules. For example, a habitual runaway might be required by the court to have no unexcused school absences, to obey school and family rules, and not run away. A child can be placed in detention for violating the court order.

The June Court of Appeals ruling said that the girl, whose name was not released because she is a juvenile, had finished a probationary period that the Jessamine Family Court imposed on her months before and that she was not given a chance to defend herself before she was placed in detention for 30 days.

The girl should not have been punished for allegedly violating a court order after her probation period expired, the appeals court judges said.

This was especially important, they said, because the same court had determined that the girl had been abused and neglected in the home of her mother and stepfather.

"A family and child in trouble should not be further torn apart by the system that is in place to provide stability and reunification," the Kentucky Court of Appeals order said.

Time limits

Flood said her legislation, which she plans to pre-file in December for the 2011 General Assembly session, would put time limits on court orders for status offenses so police would not have to spend time picking up kids on warrants that could be years old.

The legislation would also require judges to verify that sufficient efforts had been made to help children through community services.

Flood said research shows that "locking them up with criminals does not help at all; it only influences them with greater criminality."

It costs $152 a day to incarcerate a child in Kentucky, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, Litigation Director for the Children's Law Center, which has offices in Lexington and Northern Kentucky, said there "are proven ways to address youth misbehavior that are more effective and less expensive than locking kids up, but we are not using them nearly enough."

Other options

Patrick Yewell, an official with the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said that agency is working to provide judges with options other than incarceration. One program focuses on truancy prevention.

Timothy Arnold, an official with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, the agency that represented the Jessamine County girl in her appeal, sent a request to justices on the Kentucky Supreme Court in July asking them to adopt clear and consistent guidelines for how status offender cases are handled in Family Court. That included having judges consider ordering a child to participate in a program to help with his or her problems.

Arnold said in an interview that there are services available in almost every community.

"It breaks your heart," he said of the children who have been jailed. "These are not tough kids. ... They are terrified. ... They are in an environment that is extraordinarily scary to them."