Photo courtesy of The Sentencing Project

While historically an area of common ground focused on community safety, accountability, and right-sizing responses for youth who get in trouble, the juvenile justice system has been experiencing an array of issues in the state of Kentucky recently.

Despite overwhelming data to show youth offenses – including violent offenses – remain much lower than in years past and, in response to current safety issues in juvenile detention centers, advocates must stay vigilant to proposals seeking to undermine progress of past legislation by mandating incarceration for more youth in the 2023 legislative session.

In a newly released report from the Sentencing Project, they explain why youth incarceration fails to improve public safety and helps provide insight as to why detention centers across the state and across the country are faring so poorly.

According to the report, the immaturity of adolescents’ brains fuels delinquency. The parts of the brain that govern critical thinking and control impulsivity are not fully developed for most until around 25 years of age and those functions can be further hindered by childhood trauma. Evidence shows that incarceration slows down the maturation process that allows most youth to grow out of delinquent behaviors. Additionally, in Kentucky detention centers, staffing issues and lack of mental health support has contributed to riots, assaults, and other issues. Instead, holding youth accountable with programming that recognizes and promotes positive development is needed.

If a child makes a mistake, they need to be held accountable based on the seriousness of their offense, not the desire of adults to remove them from their community. If regressive legislation had been enacted last session, an AOC report requested to evaluate a potential increase in detentions as a result of the bill showed that an additional 427 kids in 2022 would have been taken into custody. That was despite the fact that the individual cases were assessed for risk and reviewed by a judge who was able to make a determination based on the specific facts of each case.

These youth would experience the negative impacts associated with detention, even though extensive research suggests that incarceration does not reduce delinquent conduct. Tracking young people over time shows that incarceration instead:

  • Increases a youth’s chance of recidivism 
  • increases the odds that youth will become further involved in the justice system
  • reduces college enrollment and completion
  • leads to shorter life expectancy
  • causes lasting damage to young people’s physical and mental health.

So, what does work?

Community alternatives to juvenile detention for less serious offenses provide equal or better outcomes at far lower costs. The Sentencing Project mentions examples such as Youth Advocate Programs, Credible Messengers, wraparound programs, YouthBuild, and other programs led by community, neighborhood, civic, and faith-based organizations. These programs show powerful evidence of effectiveness in steering court-involved youth from delinquency and towards success by connecting youth to caring adults, positive youth development activities, support of the youth’s entire family, and addressing needs or problems that might be interfering with the youth’s overall wellbeing. 

Several policy and practice reforms, such as reforming detention practices, diversion practices, and alternatives to detention, also show substantial promise in reducing incarceration while improving youth and public safety outcomes. We can hold most youth with less serious offenses accountable outside of the justice system and improve public safety outcomes by right-sizing our responses to the youth’s behavior.

Kentucky needs a juvenile justice system that is focused on safety and rehabilitation, accountability and better outcomes for the young people impacted, and addressing the root causes of the child’s behavior and how these young people can grow up to be contributing members of our communities.

This upcoming session we hope to see common sense laws passed to make the juvenile justice system more effective in achieving positive outcomes. Over incarcerating our young people isn’t effective – legislators were thoughtful about this issue in the past, and we shouldn’t undo it with knee-jerk responses. Let’s focus on what actually works! 

Watch a recent conversation on the juvenile justice system on KET’s Kentucky Tonight featuring Dr. Terry Brooks and members of the General Assembly, including Senator Whitney Westerfield, Representative Jason Nemes, Representative Nima Kulkarni, and Representative Keturah Herron.