Kentucky’s Changing Use of Incarceration for Status Offenses

blog chart for status offenses1

Kentucky has seen a steady decline in the practice of putting youth in juvenile jails (officially called secure juvenile detention centers) for status offenses (things like skipping school or running away from home) since peaking in 2007. In fact, use of this practice has fallen by 52 percent from 2007 to 2012. This is great news given the use of incarceration is the most expensive and least effective response to status offense behaviors. However, more than 1,000 Kentucky children and teens under age 18 still find themselves placed behind bars each year for these juvenile behavior problems, instead of getting the help they need to address the root cause of their acting out.

If we were to wait for this gradual decline to reach the point where fewer than 100 Kentucky youth are jailed for status offenses, it would take more than a decade at the average annual rate we’ve experienced since 2007 (assuming the trend continued). Luckily, that scenario is unlikely. Instead, we expect state lawmakers to take action soon. In his blog, Senator Whitney Westerfield, co-chair of the Unified Juvenile Code Task Force, lays out some of the next steps for the Task Force, and states that “we also have the responsibility to ensure that juvenile offenders get the help they need to be productive citizens.” Also, Representative John Tilley, the Task Force’s other co-chair, said in a recent Courier-Journal story that “We can’t incarcerate children who haven’t committed a crime. … There is a consistent chorus to no longer detain status offenders for any reason.”

Ending this harmful practice is one big step in the right direction, but it is equally important that we replace it with evidence-based practices that have been proven effective. This is why we advocate taking youth charged with status offenses completely out of the juvenile justice system, and instead treating them through a Children In Need of Services system housed within the Department for Community Based Services. Since status offenses are not criminal offenses, and since they are usually the result of larger issues (such as family dysfunction, school bullying, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and physical or sexual abuse), we are encouraged to see policymakers talk of shifting to a treatment-oriented approach rather than a criminal justice approach.