Skipping School or Running Away, Keeping Youth from Behind Bars

We haven’t charged any 4-year-old with a crime since 2008!  Patrick Yewell, Executive Officer of Family and Juvenile Servcies at the Administrative Office of the Courts, offered that tongue-in-cheek praise at last week’s second meeting of Kentucky’s Unified Juvenile Code Task Force.  But his message was clear – we need common sense revisions to the laws that govern how we handle youth misbehaviors.  He proposed changes to handle misbehavior by young children with services to tackle the core problem – proposals that would better serve children while also improving the safety of the Commonwealth.

Mr. Yewell made further recommendations regarding the prosecution of children 10 and under.  Young kid’s brains aren’t developed enough to understand the consequences behind their actions or how to best make decisions, much less the penalty of pleading guilty to a crime.  Because of this, Mr. Yewell has made the suggestion that Kentucky change the law to divert all children 10 and under from the court process to services. Incarcerating children who do not commit serious offenses can make them more likely to commit serious offenses in the future. It has been proven that a person is 4-10 times more likely to enter the adult criminal justice system if they have had contact with the justice system during their childhood.

One common theme to the presentations was the value of investing in rehabilitation. The task force heard about a successful treatment program – Owensboro Day Treatment – that has helped kids get back on track and decrease instances of recidivism.  Researchers from the University of Kentucky were able to expand on the effectiveness of healing instead of jailing.

Dr. Jennifer Cole’s research seemed to support such treatment centers, showing that the cost of treating youth with substance abuse problems, instead of locking them up, is a wise investment of dollars.  The cost of not treating substance abuse issues to society is youth continuing down a path towards criminal activity and the adult criminal justice system is astounding.

Dr. Bill Heffron, who specializes in adolescent psychiatry, summed up the value of rehabilitation. He said that working with youth in the juvenile justice system to complete school is one of the greatest predictors of keeping those youth from committing crimes in the future. That’s something that we can all agree is best for public safety and the youth.

Many presenters conveyed the ineffectiveness of incarcerating youth.  One of the core questions surrounding juvenile justice is how to minimize incarceration and punishment and maximize public safety.  It has been found that incarceration is ineffective, expensive, and often counter-productive and should be reserved for only those offenders that are most serious and violent.

Dr. Heffron outlined current practices that are not only ineffective but harmful to youth in the justice system: boot camps, mixing low and high risk youth, and the excessive supervision of low risk offenders.  These approaches increase recidivism rates and often causes low-risk youth to adopt a more “delinquent” mindset.

Not only do we know what doesn’t work, but we know what does!  Dr. Heffron further expanded on best practices used to counteract youth misbehavior for families (Multisystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, and parent training) and the youth themselves (teaching school competency skills, teaching “thinking skills,” and focusing treatments based on the risk level).  These approaches emphasize gathering an entire community around the child to help address and treat the core problems.  Because these practices are proven to be effective, it only makes sense to do what works!

Adolescent brain development was an issue area that almost all presenters hit upon.  It is known that the decision making area of the brain does not fully develop until age 25.  Kids make decisions based on impulses, rewards, emotions, and their peer group. Are youth involved in the justice system hardened criminals that need to be reckoned with, or are they just kids being kids, who certainly need to be held accountable but in a way that sets them up to become productive citizens? The presenters told the task force the latter is certainly the case.

An ongoing challenge to the juvenile justice system is how to handle status offenders.  Is it fair to incarcerate a child who skips school or runs away?  DCBS Commissioner Teresa James provided a solution, but highlighted the need of resources in order to get there!  Often times, especially in the case of young children, status offenses are being committed and children are being incarcerated because there is an underlying problem, often stemming from the family.  Instead of jailing kids for non-serious offenses, Commissioner James boldly stated that these children are the responsibility of DCBS.  She acknowledged that these are children in need of services, not bars.

So one might ask, “if these children are the responsibility of DCBS, why are they getting put behind bars?”  The answer, of course, is funding.  It is extremely expensive to incarcerate human beings, and because of this there is less funding available for other in-home services.  The encouraging news is that Commissioner James suggested that DCBS could serve more children with services if they had some up-front funding to shift their resources towards in-home services and away from expensive out-of-home care placements.  Once more children are being treated at home, less would be jailed or placed in foster care, and it would free up the funds currently being used on those less-effective solutions.  In-home treatment is not only more effective but would save taxpayer money, which is something everyone can agree on.

The committee will have this next month to consider the findings of this meeting and to start working in small groups to address the broad range of issues under the umbrella of juvenile justice.  The next meeting is September 26.