Doing What Works to Get Kids Back on Track: An Overview of the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force Meeting

Last month’s convening of the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force hosted national speakers from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG), and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). The speakers shared national trends and specific examples of states shifting away from the use of incarceration of youth to implementing community-based interventions that have been proven to keep the public safe and help kids get back on track.

Across the country, states have been implementing major changes to juvenile justice policies and are now reaping the benefits of better outcomes. In addition to showing trends in state reforms, the Criminal Justice Expert from the NCSL presented several models for reform with proven positive results. For example, Arkansas reinvested $700,000 in 2011 to expand capacities for less punitive more strengths-based interventions following the reduced reliance on detention. Ohio also passed legislation in 2011 to allocate 45% of facility closure funds to services with the same premise.

There is an extraordinary amount of evidence showing what works in handling status offenses. The Director of the National Initiatives Division at the CSG Justice Center, a national non-partisan non-profit representing all three branches of government, outlined three critical evidence-based approaches to status offenses. To obtain optimal results, states must fully understand what children are running from to be able to address the problem, engage and assess families, and apply proven treatments to effectively tend to needs. When using these practices, results revealed reductions in many areas of concern including repeating offenses, re-arrests, and days in detention.

Texas has also implemented significant reform while saving money and improving outcomes. TPPF, a conservative state-based think-tank has identified ten key principles to free market juvenile justice reform, and they have helped implement reforms in Texas. Texas began ending the incarceration of youth for misdemeanors in state-run detention facilities, which led to the closing of several detention facilities. The closures saved money, enabling them to reinvest in practices that were helping the children get back on track. These changes not only address public safety, but also save money and protect our children. Texas is evidence that the most effective programs are not the most expensive ones. The presenter said, “If Texas can do it, so can you,” referring to Kentucky

Status offenses are one of the pressing areas being addressed by the Task Force. In Jefferson County, Alabama, children and their families are required to attend multiple counseling sessions before a parent can file a petition saying the child is beyond control. In New York City they meet with a qualified Family Assessment Specialist who objectively evaluates the problem and helps the family tackle it.

Without freeing up funding, doing what works and keeping children in their community by evaluating the root cause of the presenting problems will never be possible. A representative from the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University spoke on financial strategies available to implement the above recommendations. For example, Kentucky has many financial resources at its disposal including current and potential grants. Additionally, Federal programs and policies like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) are also accessible at the federal level and all have direct relations to helping children with this issue. Kentucky could also benefit from financial mapping. By mapping out funding we can see where our money is currently going or coming from and begin to orient funding streams so that they go in directions that benefit the whole. The Georgetown representative concluded her presentation by explaining the need to coordinate existing resources and funding streams. This is similar to the idea of inter-agency collaboration that has been demonstrated in previous meetings. By channeling multiple streams of funding into one “pool” there will be more money to work with, thus more viable options for progress become available.

States have demonstrated that cost-effective, evidence-based programs get our kids back on track and free up money to reinvest in solutions that work. By implementing evidence-based solutions, we will keep the public safe and our children at home, not in detention.

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