Op-Ed

Reform federal law to give juveniles chances to improve their lives

McClatchy-Tribune

In my nearly 25 years of protecting and serving families in the commonwealth, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. One is that when my officers make an arrest or book someone in jail, the offender is likely to commit a crime again if they are not dealt with appropriately.

This is especially important for young, first-time offenders who are faced with either continuing a life of crime or following a path to productive citizenry.

I want youth to make that second choice, and some say that the only way juvenile offenders can fully understand the consequences of their actions is by being placed in juvenile detention.

But evidence shows that for 91 percent of juveniles facing custody, placement in detention facilities does little to reduce their rate of re-offending. Providing them with local, effective youth programs, however, does reduce this rate.

Despite this knowledge, our country still spends more than $5 billion a year on keeping juvenile offenders in facilities.

That’s why I support the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) — the only piece of legislation in Congress that can cut this wasteful government spending, hold kids accountable for their actions, and get them what they need to stay away from crime.

The House and the Senate have unanimously passed their own versions of the bill. All that’s left to do is get a final version through Congress and onto the president’s desk. I’m calling on Congress to work together to make this final push to improve the safety of our communities.

On a state level, Kentucky has already figured out more cost-effective ways to break cycles of criminal behavior. In 2013, our state realized that one bed in a juvenile detention center cost an average of $87,000 per year — more than one year’s tuition, room and board for a first-year student at Harvard.

It was also 18 times the cost of providing youth with alternative services like Functional Family Therapy ($3,500 to $4,600 per year), a program that research shows cuts crime by half or more compared to placing young offenders among other troubled youth.

In short, we saw that putting young people in detention facilities was wasting taxpayer dollars, and it wasn’t really solving the problem of steering kids from crime. That’s why Kentucky passed legislation in 2014 to reduce the number of youth in these facilities and save taxpayers $24 million over five years.

As of 2016, the number of youth in out-of-home centers had decreased by 40 percent in less than 24 months.

It’s time for the federal government to catch up to our state. Congress can make this happen by fully passing a reauthorized JJDPA.

JJDPA has not been reauthorized since 2002, and therefore it includes outdated policies that are both ineffective and a waste of government resources. It also includes archaic practices like the Valid Court Order rule, which makes it possible for a judge to send youth to detention for violating a valid court order, even if their underlying offense is nothing more than smoking cigarettes or skipping school.

I grew up in a Kentucky household where my parents ingrained in me the belief that all actions have consequences. I understand the argument that unapologetic implementation of the law is critical to stopping crime. But I also believe in following the facts, and research is crystal clear that overbearing provisions like the VCO are not effective in preventing reoffending.

In fact, the only thing the it really seems to do is send runaways, particularly young women and girls who are fleeing physical and sexual abuse, to detention. That doesn’t sound like a solution to me.

My office has seen firsthand that teens and youth who come from stressful circumstances like poverty and abuse are at a higher risk for drug addiction and crime. It is critical that we work with these individuals to incorporate them into our community and not separate them from support that they need.

I urge Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and the rest of the Kentucky delegation in Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act.

Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton is a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids; a nationwide organization of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and violence survivors.

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