Op-Ed

Ky. senators voted for urgent juvenile-justice reform

McClatchy-Tribune

City BBQ, which serves best brisket I have ever eaten, also features an array of “front porch gems of wisdoms” that make you smile and think. Taken from a gas station in North Carolina, one reads: “If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of progress?”

It’s no secret that for many years, the public has been answering that question, “yes.” A recent Gallup Poll has congressional approval at 20 percent, which is actually good news for the lawmakers when compared with Real Politics results at a 15 percent approval rating.

You can blame history, gerrymandered districts, the media or either party; but clearly, it’s easy to make Congress a punching bag. That narrative challenges us all, therefore, to take note when Congress does act with wisdom to make a real and positive difference.

Kentuckians can be proud that both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul led the way on a major bipartisan win for youth last week with passage of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act. With House passage of a similar version of the bill in April, the reauthorization of the JJDPA finally looks on track to become reality.

The reauthorization supports state reform efforts to make youth-justice systems work more effectively — both for youth and for public safety. Youth need to be held accountable in effective ways that get them on track to become successful adults. The legislation supports state flexibility to connect youth with the resources, supports and skills they need to do just that.

JJDPA improves support for prevention efforts to keep youth from entering the maze of the justice system, which can be easy to enter and has too few opportunities to exit. It promotes interventions that work to improve public safety.

It also prioritizes strategies that have been proven to get children on a positive path to becoming productive citizens, which is not only good for communities, but also makes for better use of taxpayer dollars.

As the JJDPA moves toward becoming law, we hope the final version takes strong action to do what we know works best for children who run away or skip school — incidents known as status offenses. We urge Congress to phase out an exception that still allows children to be locked up for status offenses, as proposed in the House version of the bill.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which originally sought that exception decades ago, now supports removing it because of clear research showing detention yields poor outcomes for low-risk youth.

Kentucky has already begun implementing more effective responses than locking kids up — responses that spend less taxpayer money, get better results for community safety and help get youth on track to become productive members of our commonwealth.

As we look ahead to the fall, our senators’ advocacy for kids has to also continue on a number of other issues to come before Congress.

For example, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has been the most significant catalyst for children’s health gains this nation has ever seen, will be up for re-authorization. The Family First Act, which will positively revolutionize the child welfare system, is also slated for fall consideration.

I hope they will once again disprove that City BBQ sign when it comes to progress. Our kids are depending on it.

Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

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