Politics & Government

Kentucky's juvenile justice system could see major changes, lawmaker says

Kentucky's juvenile justice system could see major reform, with fewer children incarcerated, under a task force's recommendations that probably will become proposed legislation, a lawmaker said.

Fewer lower-level juvenile offenders who don't have a criminal history would end up behind bars. They would stay at home if possible and get supervision and help in community programs under the proposed reforms from the 2013 Task Force on the Unified Juvenile Code.

That panel has been meeting for two years in a step toward overhauling Kentucky's juvenile justice system, which has been criticized for jailing teens and even younger children who are not a risk to the public.

State Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said the work of the task force, which convened in 2012, is "the same formula we used in 2011 when we reformed the state's criminal justice code, which has since gone on to be recognized nationally as model legislation."

The report calls for the development of an entirely new system to help schools and families deal with truants and runaways. That system might not involve the courts.

"Court involvement would not necessarily be required by the new system, but if this system does include a court process, assessments and referrals to services as well as ongoing case management, should be completed prior to any court involvement. Further, the system should require engagement of families if appropriate," the report said.

The shift of lower-risk youth and resources from out-of-home placement to community programs would improve public safety, hold offenders accountable, improve outcomes, and control costs in the juvenile justice system, the report said. Over the next five years, the proposed reforms are expected to save Kentucky millions, and the task force recommends that the savings be reinvested in supervision and services in local communities.

Tilley, co-chairman of the task force, said the most important recommendations from the report center on status offenses — violations, such as truancy or running away from home. Those offenses "would not even be a crime if committed by an adult, but these juveniles are being put behind razor wire," he said.

"It's both costly, ineffective and unjust, especially when you consider that it takes $70,000 more a year to house a juvenile when compared to an adult who is incarcerated," Tilley said.

Youth convicted of misdemeanors and violators of court orders make up the majority — ranging from 55 percent to 87 percent — of those in the state's out-of-home placements, the report said.

Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Leigh Anne Hiatt said department officials are "committed to reducing the use of detention when more treatment alternatives become available."

The length of time violators of court orders and misdemeanor offenders spend in out-of-home incarceration has increased 31 percent and 21 percent, respectively, over the past decade, the report said. Lower-level offenders constitute a majority and growing share of youth in Kentucky's secure youth development center facilities: from 2002 to 2012, they increased as a share of the secure population from 39 percent to 55 percent. Offenders could also be placed far from their homes, creating obstacles for involving families.

Many of the youth had limited criminal histories, or none at all, before their most restrictive out-of-home placement with the Department of Juvenile Justice, according to the report. Hundreds of status offenders are spending time out of their homes in foster care or in detention, and inconsistent decisions are made across the state, the report said.

In addition to discussing status offenders, the report addressed public offenders — children found to have committed an offense that would also be a crime if committed by an adult. Fifty-nine percent of the status complaints and one-quarter of public offense complaints reviewed by the task force were school-related. The report said the General Assembly should require courts to track specific data on referrals to the juvenile justice system formally filed by school districts. Kentucky Department of Education officials are reviewing the report, spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said.

The Department of Juvenile Justice spends more than half of its $102 million annual budget on secure and non-secure residential facilities that cost an average of $87,000 per bed per year, the report said. In addition, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Department for Community Based Services spent an estimated $6 million in fiscal year 2012 for out-of-home placement of status offenders.

The task force found evidence that placement in out-of-home facilities does not lower the likelihood of juvenile re-offending, and could increase the likelihood of committing a new crime for some offenders.

The task force recommended refocusing resources on higher-level offenders and reinvesting savings into strengthening prevention programs.

The report suggests authorizing courts and pre-court diversion programs to impose requirements for parents that include counseling.

Tilley said he expects that legislation reflecting the recommendations will be filed during the 2014 General Assembly's second or third week. Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks praised Tilley and the other co-chairman of the task force, Sen Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, for recommendations that reflect a commitment "to find common ground and identify changes that will make Kentucky's juvenile justice system work better to achieve the outcomes we all want to see — better outcomes for children, increased public safety, and more effective use of state dollars."