Kentucky’s Juvenile Justice Taskforce, created during this year’s legislative session, met for the first time this week to begin studying the juvenile code and making recommendations for improvement. It is exciting to see the work get underway, after the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children has called for legislative change to improve how Kentucky deals with behaviors like skipping school or running away. The task force holds great promise for improving how Kentucky handles these children and other children facing court, while increasing public safety at the same time.

The task force members heard from a number of experts in juvenile justice: several judges and Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children partner, Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto of the Children’s Law Center. The following themes emerged from the presentations:

Presenters discussed the critical role that mental health services, substance abuse services and case management plays in addressing the reasons youth behave in a way that causes them to end up in court.

  • In Campbell County, Judge Karen Thomas has engaged community members to ensure youth who are at risk of being referred to court for running away, beyond control or missing school receive services first to address underlying causes of the behavior. In nearly all of the cases they have addressed, the issue gets resolved with the services.
  • With limited state money to invest in new services, Judge Thomas recommended thinking creatively to identify and utilize existing sources of money to pay for services.
  • While seeming to agree with the need for services for these children, task force member Justice Mary Noble raised the question of appropriate jurisdiction and whether the court should play the role of ensuring youth receive services when problems arise. Many states have adopted a model that treats children as being “in need of services” rather than treating their behaviors as crimes. When that happens, we tackle the core problem, and children are less likely to continue down a path of behaviors that can eventually put public safety at risk. Kentucky has already devoted public resources to drafting such proposed legislation in the past and Task Force members agreed to review that work.
  • Judge Joan Byer of Jefferson County raised the point that there is an exceptionally high cost for incarcerating youth, many of whom have a history of being abused or neglected, rather than providing services to get them back on track. She referenced several national reports that offer guidance on proven, cost-effective reforms in juvenile justice, such as the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s POSITIVE POWER: Exercising Judicial Leadership to Prevent Court Involvement and Incarceration of Non-Delinquent Youth.

The speakers also talked about the need to distinguish between youth who present a danger to the public and youth who have not followed court orders but do not present a danger, when making decisions about incarcerating youth in detention facilities.

  • Judge James Adams of Christian County shared some of the work underway in Christian County that models reforms made by Judge Steven Teske in Georgia. He shared Judge Teske’s motto that he needs to lock up children he is scared of, not children who make him mad. He mentioned that Judge Teske’s model has been successful at addressing the underlying causes of behavior with youth and their families earlier at the school level, without sending the cases to court.
  • DiLoreto called for limiting the unnecessary incarceration of youth, sharing that only 5.8 percent of youth committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2010 were committed for violent offenses. Of all youth incarcerated in a DJJ detention facility over the past five years, approximately one in four were there for a Class A misdemeanor and another fourth were incarcerated for contempt of court. Only 11 to 12 percent were incarcerated for a serious offense during that time.

Many opportunities exist in Kentucky that help set the stage for strong reforms. DiLoreto identified several, including:

  • The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative embraced by Hasan Davis, Commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice and several local communities;
  • The commitment of schools to end the school to prison pipeline;
  • Family and Juvenile Courts trying to coordinate case management;
  • The recent re-examination of Department of Community Based Services (DCBS) practices;
  • Advanced training in Jefferson County on the impact of trauma in children’s lives; and
  • Recognition in published court cases of the importance of rehabilitation for all young offenders.

We are excited to see how the task force work unfolds under the leadership of Senator Katie Stine and Representative John Tilley. The first meeting seemed to set the stage well for achieving some key goals of reform: reduce unnecessary child incarceration and interaction with the juvenile justice system; implement effective evidence-based interventions; and support due process rights for all children.