Locking Up Youth for Status Offenses: Ineffective and Expensive

I recently got back from a little trip to Florida. It is easy to fall in love with the sun and sand and seafood. But hey, all is not perfect down there. I mean what can you say about a state where the highest elevation is 345 feet? That is not even a molehill in certain parts of Kentucky. Also, the Sunshine State now has the official title of the nation’s most congested state, finally edging out California. And, we as Kentuckians can’t be too happy with a state whose Gators have beaten the Wildcats in football every year since 1986.

But here is one thing that Florida does well – it knows how to address status offenses, which are behaviors such as skipping school or running away from home. Florida revolutionized its approach to dealing with children who commit status offenses, creating a “families in need of services” system in which all aspects of government comes together to solve family and youth issues. Florida recognized the complexity of issues often involved in a status offense case. The state experienced a substantial reduction in cases petitioned to the court, saw increased success rates and saved an estimated $31-37 million according to Florida’s TaxWatch.

When we think about status offenses in Kentucky, what we do know is that only one state in the nation locks up more children who commit status offenses than does Kentucky. In fact, 60% of the children who commit status offenses who are incarcerated in the nation are in Washington, Texas and Kentucky. Whenever we as a state are an outlier, we have to critically analyze what that means. In some cases, it may mean we are leading the nation in a positive way. In other cases – and the issue of incarcerating children who commit status offenses falls into this category – it means that we are applying 20th century solutions to 21st century issues.

Research is compelling. Detaining children who commit status offenses is the least effective but the most expensive way to deal with these young people. Beyond the immediate issues of ineffectiveness and cost, locking up children who commit status offenses has been shown to be a pipeline to criminal offenses and later, adult prison.

Let me be clear – I am not talking about criminal offenses. As Executive Director of KYA, as a citizen and frankly as a grandfather of five, I fully recognize that there are young people – sadly – who by their actions need to be locked up both for their safety and that of the broader community. That is not who I am talking about today, and that is not who they are talking about in Lexington, Northern Kentucky, Owensboro or many other parts of the state. We must handle each differently.

Recently, under the leadership of Representative Tilley and Senator Jensen, the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary met in Frankfort to discuss the issue of locking up youth who commit status offenses. The time for change is ripe. A practical and common sense place to begin to improve the system is by putting some limitations on the use of incarceration for these youth and making sure we have exhausted other options.

The good news is that there are many ways we can use taxpayer dollars more wisely with effective programs. For example, the Administrative Office of the Courts already has an excellent diversion structure that allows kids to make amends for actions through diversion and not get tangled up in court. Gateway Children’s Services, MASH of the Bluegrass and the YMCA Safe Place – to name some – safely take care of youth who have run away from home without locking them up. Crisis stabilization units located in every region of the Commonwealth are a service that many children who commit status offenses qualify to use and some judges have begun to start using these in place of incarceration.

Better outcomes and budget savings. Now that is a Florida lesson from which we can learn.

For more information on this topic, visit http://www.kyyouth.org/Issue_Areas/Juvenile_Justice/.

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