Legislature can ensure better outcomes for kids and safer communities

Terry I. Brooks
Terry I. Brooks

Over the past several years, there has been a vibrant and robust atmosphere of bipartisan progress in Frankfort when it comes to youth justice — to achieve better outcomes for children, families and public safety. As an example, Senate Bill 200 brought positive and sweeping reform for kids in 2014.

The last several years have seen a divergent group of leaders — Rep. Darryl Owens, Sen. Whitney Westerfield, Sen. John Tilley (as a Democratic House member and now as Justice Cabinet secretary), Senate President Robert Stivers and both the Beshear and Bevin administrations — giving voice for common-sense changes in how we treat young people when they make mistakes.

The results have been sweeping, and the dividends are good for kids, improved public safety and a solid return on investment for the state budget.

We have yet another real opportunity to move ahead. It is important to recognize that the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council — created with the passage of SB 200 to study its implementation — has been identifying improvements needed to fully realize the potential of SB 200 for more than two years.

Given the record of progress, the extensive analysis and the clear commitment from the legislature and the Bevin administration when it comes to vulnerable youth, now is the time to take action in this arena.

Like a maze, the youth justice system has too many entrances and too few ways out.

Senate Bill 20, sponsored by Westerfield, will redesign parts of the maze to close unnecessary entrances. With a redesign, we can implement what is proven to work for public safety and for getting young people on track to become productive citizens.

As the Herald-Leader reported recently, children as young as 4, 5 and 6 years old can end up with a complaint filed against them. This opens the door for children to be in court. SB 20 would send such cases to the interdisciplinary Family Accountability, Intervention and Response team to connect the family and child to services to address the child’s actions.

SB 20 will require better data collection and reporting by state agencies to address the harsher treatment that some groups of youth in the justice system experience. Analysis of Kentucky data suggests that black youth who commit similar offenses experience harsher treatment than white youth. We need the most accurate information possible to make sure youth of color don’t have more ways into the system and fewer ways out than other youth.

Beyond better data collection, we already know of some ways that youth of color are experiencing harsher treatment. For example, they are more likely to have their case handled in adult court. The research shows treating youth as adults rather than holding them accountable in the youth justice system can actually backfire if we use it for offenses that don’t impact a person’s safety.

SB 20 seeks to refocus on what matters to public safety in such decisions. Mazes in the justice system are no laughing matter for Kentucky’s kids — nor for the safety of our cities and towns. The General Assembly and Gov. Matt Bevin can create better outcomes for kids and safer communities by continuing the momentum around youth justice reform.

Terry I. Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.