Finding Common Ground in Youth Justice Reform

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is today.” DJJ Commissioner Hasan Davis used that Chinese Proverb as a metaphor for the progress of the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force, believing that in the past we did not use the available resources to plant the seeds that will enrich and safeguard Kentucky’s youth and we must seize the opportunity to do it now.

School representatives talked about their efforts to work with students before court charges and presented a compelling case for enhancing collaboration between public education and DCBS. They repeatedly stated that increasing transparency between the two systems will help them prevent charges brought upon youth for Status Offenses. Teresa James, Commissioner of DCBS, agreed with their statement and was eager to dive into making the collaboration happen. Mrs. James also insightfully recommended that investigation of HIPAA and FERPA boundaries in relation to the educators’ goals would be tantamount to overall success. Overall, clear agreement was found on doing what was effective to keep kids in school and engaged.

These experienced educators later elaborated on the outdated statutes that haven’t taken into account new opportunities, such as virtual learning. They urged legislators to revise KRS 159 in this upcoming session to address changes such as allowing virtual education and not allowing home schooling to avoid truancy issues.

A similar stance was taken by the prosecutors from Campbell, Jessamine, and Jefferson County. As nearly all will agree, they stated that the youth need to be held accountable for their actions; however, they had a differing view of motivating the youth. The overarching opinion from the prosecutors was that detention should not be taken off of the table, claiming that some youth may benefit from the incarceration. This is in stark contrast to research that states an increased propensity to repeat or commit worse offenses after being incarcerated. In fact the research shows that the best way to improve long-term public safety is to avoid locking up youth for minor offenses that don’t pose a public safety threat.

The presenters also offered some insightful solutions to the concerns about incarcerating youth for things like running away or skipping school. The County Attorney from Campbell County posited that a unified system of all alternatives to incarceration across the Commonwealth is necessary and that there is a growing communication gap between said services. His view reflected and correlated well with the proposed solutions of the educators as well as prior assertions by the Task Force.

The points brought up by both parties displayed the underlying theme that no one wants to see Kentucky’s youth locked up unnecessarily. We do have to identify how best to hold youth accountable without jeopardizing public safety with unnecessary incarceration. The agreement and recognizing of the importance of public safety by groups on all sides if the issue marks an opportunity for finding common ground and moving forward from there. The great variation in the ways these emotions and objectives were displayed demonstrates that there will never be a “one size fits all” solution to the epidemic that is the unnecessary incarceration of our children. However, together we can define the best practices to do what is most effective and most cost-efficient.

The task force also heard a presentation on human trafficking and how it intersects with unnecessary incarceration of youth. The presenters shed light on what youth might being running away from, stating that individuals active in soliciting children look for vulnerable individuals such as youth who have run away from home. An important fact given was that within the first 72 hours of running away children are at the highest risk of being propositioned by a pimp or trafficking boss. While it is appalling to think about, it is a harsh reality we must face and calls for an effective solution for youth who run away. The most important factor in the presentation was that these specific youth need to be treated as the victims and not the criminals. By locking up youth with these experiences, we add to the trauma they have experienced and exacerbate their predicament, not resolve it.

The United Juvenile Code Task Force will be convening in small work teams to discuss particular matters in further detail and will reconvene on October 25th.