Earlier this week, Kentucky Youth Advocates released an updated report on Kentucky’s use of incarceration of youth for things like missing school and running away. The trend shows promise of fewer incarcerations for these misbehaviors called status offenses, but the numbers remain too high. Approximately 1 of every 6 youth locked up in 2011 was locked up for a status offense – something that would not even be a crime for an adult.

Source: Data collected by Department of Juvenile Justice.

The report has a couple of key takeaways. First, the efforts of many over the past several years are showing an impact with the numbers of incarcerations of youth dropping. Judges have shown leadership on the issue at the local level, and the number has dropped substantially in several counties. As an example, Kenton County Judges Chris Mehling and Lisa Bushelman convened a community meeting in September from which a committee was formed to tackle the issue. Even getting the effort underway late in the year, Kenton County saw one of the largest drops in the number of incarcerations in 2011 compared to the previous year. Many other groups have helped create momentum, from state agencies to advocacy organizations, to policymakers. The takeaway – we can change the high use of incarceration.

Second, we can’t afford to wait. The research is pretty clear that it is bad for public safety to send kids to jail for minor things. And let’s be clear – we are literally talking about jail cells and jumpsuits as a way to deal with kids who have skipped school or acted out, yet pose no threat to public safety. When kids are locked up for minor offenses – like status offenses – it actually increases the chance that they will commit actual crimes in the future. We need crime prevention in Kentucky, not crime promotion.

Third, we have many options for tackling the problem. To fully address the issue will take a shift in the resources we have to address youth behavior problems – a shift away from readily-available detention beds to evidence-based, cost-effective programs. The juvenile justice task force established by the legislature in the 2012 session presents a great opportunity for limiting the incarceration of youth for status offenses in a meaningful way while also bringing supports to the courts, schools, and parents to address the core reasons for the misbehavior.

See KYA’s updated report, Ending the Use of Incarceration for Status Offenses in Kentucky here.