This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on February 13, 2017.
I am that rarest of species – a male who admits he is directionally challenged. In fact, my wife Judy believes we don’t even need a GPS. It’s simple. If I think left, we go right. And if I think right, then – well, you get the picture. And can I simply say that I can’t think of anything more befuddling than finding my way out of one of those increasingly popular “cornfield mazes.”
If the idea of me in a “cornfield maze” is sadly humorous, there is nothing funny about our young people finding themselves in the maze of youth justice. And that is exactly what our youth system has been, but we can continue improving it during the 2017 General Assembly.
Over the past several years, there has been a vibrant and robust atmosphere of bi-partisan progress in Frankfort when it comes to youth justice – to achieve better outcomes for children, families, and public safety. As an example, Senate Bill 200 brought positive and sweeping reform for kids in 2014. The last several years have seen a divergent group of leaders, including Rep. Darryl Owens, Sens. Whitney Westerfield, John Tilley – as both a Democratic House member and now as Justice Cabinet Secretary – Senate President Robert Stivers, and both the Beshear and Bevin Administrations, giving their key voices for common sense changes in how we treat young people when they make mistakes. The results have been sweeping and the dividends are good for kids, improved public safety, and a solid return on investment for the state budget.
We have yet another real opportunity to move ahead. It is important to recognize that the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council – created with the passage of SB 200 to study its implementation – has been identifying improvements needed to fully realize the potential of SB 200 for more than two years. Given the record of progress, the extensive analysis, and the clear commitment from the legislature and Bevin administration when it comes to vulnerable youth, now is the time to take action in this arena.
Like a maze, the youth justice system has too many entrances and too few ways out. Legislation coming before the general assembly will help fix this. Senate Bill 20, sponsored by Sen. Westerfield, will redesign parts of the maze to close unnecessary entrances. With a redesign, we can implement what is proven to work for public safety and for getting young people on track to become productive citizens.
Kentucky Youth Advocates recently released a report documenting that children as young as four, five and six can end up with a complaint filed against them.
This opens the door for children to be in court. These children – of the age where Green Eggs and Ham is a favorite book – don’t belong in the court system. SB 20 would send such cases to the interdisciplinary Family Accountability, Intervention and Response (FAIR) team to connect the family and child to services to address the child’s actions. This approach closes the door to the youth justice maze and instead connects the child with what is needed to truly get kids back on the right path.
SB 20 will require better data collection and reporting by state agencies to address the harsher treatment that some groups of youth in the justice system experience. Analysis of Kentucky data suggests that black youth who commit similar offenses experience harsher treatment than white youth. We need the most accurate information possible to make sure youth of color don’t have more ways into the system and fewer ways out than other youth.
Beyond better data collection, we already know of some ways that youth of color are experiencing harsher treatment. For example, youth of color are more likely to have their case handled in adult court. The research shows treating youth as adults rather than holding them accountable in the youth justice system can actually backfire if we use it for offenses that don’t impact a person’s safety. SB 20 seeks to refocus on what matters to public safety in such decisions.
Yes, it is a bit funny that every turn at every traffic signal is a maze for me. But mazes in the justice system are no laughing matter for Kentucky’s kids – nor for the safety of our cities and towns. The general assembly and Gov. Bevin can create better outcomes for kids and safer communities by continuing the momentum around youth justice reform.
Dr. Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
Take action by asking the Senate Judiciary Committee to support SB 20 to modify reforms made to the youth justice system to hold all groups of accountable in ways that get them back on track while leading to safer communities HERE.