True criminal-justice reform must begin with the children


“I’ve been struck by the upside-down priorities of the juvenile justice system. We are willing to spend the least amount of money to keep a kid at home, more to put him in a foster home and the most to institutionalize him.”Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund

In their op-ed on Kentucky reforming its justice system, Gov. Matt Bevin and Secretary of Justice and Public Safety John Tilley merely scratched the surface. Improving public safety depends on finding practical, proven responses to youth crime.

Responses that work are those that focus on what is best for young people’s long-term outcomes and keep them from becoming repeat offenders as adults. Model diversion programs, which keep youth out of detention and get them back on track, should be a high-priority resource investment in Kentucky.

Building strong communities requires helping all of our young people to get on a path to healthful, productive lives. And that is its own kind of construction project. Children’s brains develop the way houses get built: foundation first, and in phases of varying lengths and intensity. The quality of the materials that go into that project — health care, education, supportive relationships, nutrition — determine the overall outcome.

Adolescence is a similarly critical phase, a time when the brain is developing important skills and abilities that people need to do well in adulthood. One such set of skills is the brain’s air-traffic control system, or what experts call “executive function.” Just like real air-traffic control at a busy airport, executive function is what helps us to process information, set priorities, and make good decisions.

In young people, that part of the brain is not fully built. That means when they get off track, we need to respond in ways that support, rather than derail, their healthy development.

Our juvenile-justice system is still treating too many young people like adults, and that does not make sense. Putting children and youth in detention places them in a bewildering maze of a system that has few exits and sometimes results in their death — as we saw in the case of Gynnya McMillen in the Lincoln Village Detention Center.

It deprives them of the supports they need — the high-quality materials — to finish building strong brains and solid executive function. Instead, it sets them up for poorer brain functioning, lowered educational attainment, along with worsened mental, physical and financial health.

Diversion and restorative justice programs present real solutions. Youth Engaged in Service (YES!) is well known among advocates as an effective alternative.

The program engages young people in a coalition of community-service organizations, training them to be leaders and teaching them the process of identifying a local need and then creating and implementing a plan to address it. Graduates have a considerably lower recidivism rate, higher graduation rate and higher college admission rate than their peers who enter detention.

If we really are committed to community health and safety, then we need to stop trapping youth in the system’s maze and instead use every tool at our disposal to build more effective and practical restorative-justice programs so that they get what they need to construct a healthy future for themselves.

State Rep.-elect Attica Scott is a Democrat from Louisville. Follow her on twitter at @atticascott.

At issue: July 6 commentary by Gov. Matt Bevin and Justice Secretary John Tilley, “Kentucky must reform its justice system to rebuild lives, community”