Doing what works in youth justice

The Unified Juvenile Code Task Force spent much of last year gathering information and hearing about research and best practices for the juvenile justice field. If last week’s meeting is any indication, that groundwork is going to start paying off. You can hear the collective knowledge of members reflected in the discussions.

Schools play a large role in the juvenile justice system as a substantial number of charges to young people come from schools – 10,175 charges were school-related in FY 2012.  School personnel came and talked about their role in working with students before filing charges for things like skipping school and being beyond control of the school.  We can all agree with the key point that young people need to be in school and learning. Schools need community support to help that happen.

Incarceration is proven to be the least effective and most expensive option for dealing with youth misbehaviors. Yet, the school representatives argued that incarceration needs to still be an option. Task force members responded saying detention is not the answer. We heard from the Commissioner of Juvenile Justice that “volumes of data” show that once a child crosses the threshold of detention, the child is more likely to commit real offenses and be locked-up again.

We also heard from a justice of Kentucky’s Supreme Court that children need consequences for their behavior – but that for many kids, detention means little more than a “school for criminals.”

The Commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services shared that hundreds of children are also placed in foster care for things like skipping school, and she cautioned that we need to be cognizant of the trauma caused to children when we remove them from their homes for skipping school.

The County Attorney on the panel spoke up that the research shows that for every one child that responds to being incarcerated, there are “a host of future dropouts and future criminals” that don’t respond to being locked up.

Representative John Tilley added that the science clearly indicates that the “scared straight” approach does not work. He summed it up well, saying that for the $248 per day we spend to incarcerate young people, we can get a much better return on investment by spending that money on programs at the front end.

The discussion last week highlighted a growing consensus in Kentucky – the state should move from holding on to old practices to doing what works. There is still plenty of work to do to figure out how to implement what works in our state. But the task force chairs and members are leading in a way that shows great promise for significant reforms to Kentucky’s juvenile justice system. Doing what works will benefit all of us – the youth, the schools, and public safety.

 

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