This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Herald Leader on September 24, 2021.
By Dr. Terry Brooks
First, on behalf of Kentucky’s kids, thanks to John Cheves and the Herald Leader for the deep, thoughtful series looking at youth detention centers in Kentucky. The stories told, the issues raised, and the challenges at hand demand action from both the Beshear Administration and the General Assembly.
There is no doubt that we must address the crisis of care within youth detention centers. It’s equally important for the 2022 General Assembly to go upstream and adopt policies that will best serve kids and bolster community safety. The research-based solutions on the table are neither rural nor urban; liberal nor conservative.
I offer the following as illustrative policies that can move through the General Assembly with the leadership of Senate President Stivers, House Speaker Osborne, and Judiciary Committee Chairs Westerfield and Massey, and then have the full support of Governor Beshear as he signs these kinds of measures into law.
Currently, the juvenile justice system operates like a complex maze with many points of entry, making it easy to get in but very difficult to get out. Entering the juvenile court system can expose kids to trauma like those painfully described in the series, disrupt their development and education, and create roadblocks into adulthood through reduced employment opportunities and increased likelihood of future incarceration. The General Assembly can continue to make commonsense shifts in how Kentucky responds when young children get in trouble to ensure safer communities and brighter futures for all kids.
How can a child still learning to read exercise their legal rights? They can’t. We must keep kindergartners – and middle schoolers, for that matter – out of court. We ask that Kentucky establish a minimum age of at least 12 years old that a child can be charged with an offense. And by not identifying and addressing the root cause of the child’s behavior – experiencing abuse, community violence, or other challenges at home – a cycle of instability is likely to continue. Instead of sending a child through this complex maze, we can connect the family to community-based services, such as mental health treatment and mentoring, so they can develop healthy coping skills and build stronger family connections.
There must also be more limits placed on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in alignment with the federal Juvenile Justice Reauthorization Act of 2018. Period.
For those youth in the detention centers, the A6 programs providing on-site alternative school education must be a responsive, personalized, and high-quality experience for the young people they serve. These programs need the oversight and accountability required to ensure the students are able to succeed once exiting detention.
As illustrated in the series, we must take a hard look at changes and investments needed to sustain a highly skilled workforce within the state’s youth detention centers. The kids in these centers are among the most vulnerable, and they deserve access to quality services and supportive staff so that they have the tools necessary to thrive when released.
And we must continue to go upstream to curb the pipeline of youth entering the juvenile justice system, often beginning in schools. The foundation set by Senate Bill 1 of 2019 emphasizes the need for trauma-informed school practices and a focus on student mental health needs. That means supportive school environments that ask, “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?” That means ensuring school resource officers are not the only option for local school districts, especially as innovative models emerge around improving community partnerships that bring more caring adults into school buildings.
Schools can move upstream by implementing restorative justice practices that give youth the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions through facilitated conversations—and for school staff to nurture healthy relationships and develop targeted agreements to keep students on track.
There must also be a commitment to studying causes, impacts, and potential solutions to handgun violence impacting too many Kentucky youth. And young people must be part of the solution, as said by Solyana Mesfin, ex-officio student member of the Kentucky Board of Education and senior at Eastern High School in Jefferson County, where a student was recently killed due to gun violence while waiting for the school bus: “We must listen to our students who are most affected by this senseless violence, provide a safe space for them to be vulnerable and promote and support student-led work toward preventing violence in the first place.”
And finally, there must be an emphasis on tracking outcomes for children at every point of the juvenile justice system. Data tells us that within the juvenile justice system, we treat some groups of children more harshly than others, even though these groups do not commit more, or more serious, offenses than other children. If we want all children to grow up to be contributing members of the community, we must get serious about addressing disparities impacting our children of color.
An efficient and effective juvenile justice system holds kids accountable, helps them grow up to become contributing members of their community, and increases public safety. Our kids don’t deserve the “flaws” and “scandals” outlined in the series – they deserve a system that works for them and their futures.
Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.