This post originally appeared as an op-ed by The Herald Leader on December 29, 2022.
By Dr. Terry Brooks
The country music sensation and Lexington’s own, Chris Stapleton, suggests, “Everybody’s got a story on their beards. I guess it’s just a way of finding common ground.” Maybe Governor Beshear, President Stivers, and Speaker Osborne – and maybe even the Chief Justice – should grow beards so the Commonwealth can find a common ground when it comes to juvenile justice.
Based on the reporting of John Cheves and Tessa Duvall, the juvenile justice system is not short on challenges. And as the 2023 General Assembly opens, candidly, I am scared about where we are headed.
Research, best practices, data, and common sense have been the cornerstones driving the legislature’s extraordinary work in child welfare over the last decade. We need those same elements applied to juvenile justice or it will grow in its divisiveness, polarization, and negative impact on both kids and community safety.
As juvenile justice proposals begin to take shape, I would respectfully suggest that the General Assembly frame the discussions around these tenets:
1. Juvenile justice is not an “either/or” proposition but rather a continuum of interventions.
There is far too much “either/or” in the current debates. Are you for or against detention? Are you for or against holding parents accountable when their child misbehaves? Instead, we need to architect a continuum that includes family supports on one end and incarceration on the other with critical intermediate elements like community-based alternatives to detention in between. Just as it has done with the continuum of child welfare in which kinship and foster care, adoption, family preservation, and residential treatment are all seen as important assets for kids. The General Assembly working with the executive and judicial branches must explicitly articulate that spectrum of interventions in juvenile justice.
2. We can and should learn from other states.
The most cursory look at other states will reveal pragmatic, creative, and effective approaches to responding when youth get in trouble. As an example, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas have all established a minimum age of accountability. That means that in those states – and some 21 others – the youngest of our kids do not enter the justice system when they make a mistake. I Instead, they enter – along with their family – a focused diversion built around social and behavioral supports. The states that have adopted this model are smart – they want to put those young kids on the right track to avoid recidivism and protect future community safety rather than plunging five-year-olds into a system that deepens problematic behaviors instead of rehabilitating them. An established minimum age to charge a child with an offense is just one common ground idea we can learn from peer states.
3. Innovate when it comes to interventions.
Surely, we can all agree that when a youth breaks a law, there must be rigorous accountability for that action. And surely, we can all agree that we want taxpayer dollars spent on what will keep those youth from committing crimes in the future. If that’s the case, incarceration – which has been shown to actually increase rearrests and reoffending – should be reserved for cases when youth pose a risk to public safety.
In some cases – like truancy – the issue should not be a juvenile justice issue at all but instead must be addressed through innovative strategies drawing families, schools, and community supports together. In other cases where there is a more serious violation, Kentucky already utilizes effective community-based interventions that can be expanded. For example, Volunteers of America is leading a restorative justice process that, rather than putting kids in jail, puts them on the right track through some “tough-minded” homework. Before we default to expanding the detention system, we need to right-size our responses and make sure the system has a range of options to use that achieve our goals on public safety.
4. The detention system does not need to be improved; It needs to be revolutionized.
Nibbling at the edges of the detention system crisis is simply insufficient and will throw good money after bad. After addressing immediate safety concerns, structural changes must be made. This means we must fundamentally reinvent the workforce, the systems for behavioral and mental health supports, and educational/career readiness programming in these centers. Until we can bring quality assurance to every juvenile detention center, we surely should not increase detention capacity and send more kids into a setting in which crises are inevitable and pose safety risks to youth and staff. To do so is minimally irresponsible and in many ways, unethical.
I still think those state leaders should grow their beards as symbolic reminders of Stapleton’s definition of common ground. But whether they do or don’t, we all can embrace these common tenets to create a common good for Kentucky’s kids and public safety when it comes to juvenile justice.
Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.