The beginning of summer often means a slowing of pace – schools let out for summer break, summer vacations bring added challenge to meeting scheduling, and the long days keep kids and parents out late in summer activities. While the summer pace may be taking hold throughout Kentucky, the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force met for the first time last week and showed no signs of adapting a leisurely pace.
Under the guidance of co-chairs Senator Whitney Westerfield and Representative John Tilley, the task force dove in to the work of identifying ways to improve Kentucky’s system of dealing with youth offenses. Commissioner Teresa James updated the group on financial mapping underway to assess how money is being spent on behavioral health and how it might be better spent to support the needs of children. Rachel Bingham and Patrick Yewell of the Administrative Office of the Courts described ways the Court Designated Worker program could serve additional children through diversion programs that can hold youth accountable without formal court involvement, which can be detrimental to children. Mr. Yewell shared that only about half of all kids who are eligible for diversion are being diverted.
The members also heard from a national speaker – Claire Shubik-Richards – who offered perspective on other states that had dealt with the challenge of locking up youth for things like skipping school or running away, also known as status offenses. She reminded the members that youth charged with status offenses do not pose a public safety threat, which is why many states have created structured services to deal with the challenges of adolescence. Themes from states with success on that front included connecting young people with services; making sure to do no harm by placing a child in detention and thereby removing the child from family and school; and recognizing there are no magic solutions so we may need to try more than one intervention with a child.
Overall, the meeting was one of productive discussion and dialogue to find solutions that will work for Kentucky. We are encouraged by the commitment of the chairs and members of the task force to make Kentucky’s juvenile justice system better. Better for public safety, better for the youth involved, better for state and county budgets, and better for respecting the rights of families and children.