Our children deserve a juvenile justice system that works for them


First, on behalf of the children of Kentucky, thanks to John Cheves and the Herald Leader for the extensive and thoughtful series on Kentucky Youth Detention Centers. The stories told, the issues raised and the challenges ahead demand action from both the Beshear administration and the General Assembly.

There is no doubt that the crisis of care in youth detention centers needs to be addressed. Equally important is that the 2022 General Assembly goes upstream and adopts policies that will best serve children and make the community safer. The research-based solutions on the table are neither rural nor urban; liberal or conservative.

I offer the following as an illustration of the policies that can pass through the General Assembly under the leadership of Speaker of the Senate Stivers, Speaker of the House Osborne, and Chairs of Judicial Committees Westerfield and Massey, and then have the full support of Governor Beshear as he signs these kinds of measures in law.

Currently, the juvenile justice system operates as a complex maze with many entry points, making entry easy but very difficult to exit. Entry into the juvenile justice system can expose children to traumas like those painfully depicted in the series, disrupt their development and education, and create barriers into adulthood by reducing employment opportunities and increasing the likelihood of future incarceration. The General Assembly can continue to make common-sense changes in the way Kentucky responds when young children struggle to ensure safer communities and a better future for all children.

How can a child who is still learning to read exercise his legal rights? They can not. We need to keep kindergarten kids – and middle school kids, for that matter – out of court. We are calling on Kentucky to establish a minimum age of at least 12 for a child to be charged with an offense. And by failing to identify and address the root cause of the child’s behavior – being the victim of abuse, community violence or other challenges in the home – a cycle of instability is likely to occur. continue. Instead of sending a child through this complex maze, we can connect the family with community services, such as mental health treatment and mentoring, so they can develop healthy coping skills and build relationships. stronger family ties.

There must also be more limits placed on the use of solitary confinement for minors in accordance with the Federal Juvenile Justice Reauthorization Act of 2018. Period.

For young people in detention centers, A6 programs offering alternative on-site school education should be a responsive, personalized and high-quality experience for the young people they serve. These programs need the oversight and accountability to ensure that students are able to succeed once released from detention.

As illustrated in the series, we need to take a close look at the changes and investments needed to maintain a highly skilled workforce in state youth detention centers. The children in these centers are among the most vulnerable and they deserve to have access to quality services and support staff so that they have the tools they need to thrive once released.

And we need to keep going upstream to curb the pipeline of young people entering the juvenile justice system, often starting in schools. The foundation established by Senate Bill 1 of 2019 emphasizes the need for trauma-informed school practices and the mental health needs of students. It means supportive school environments that ask, “What happened to you?” Rather than “what’s wrong with you?” This means that school resource officers are not the only option for local school districts, especially as innovative models emerge around improving community partnerships that bring more caring adults into school buildings.

Schools can go upstream by implementing restorative justice practices that empower young people to take responsibility for their actions through facilitated conversations and school staff to maintain healthy relationships and develop targeted agreements. to keep students on track.

There must also be a commitment to studying the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to handgun violence affecting too many young people in Kentucky. And young people must be part of the solution, as Solyana Mesfin, ex-officio student of the Kentucky Board of Education and senior at Eastern High School in Jefferson County, said, where a student was recently killed because of gun violence while waiting for the school bus: “We need to listen to our students who are most affected by this senseless violence, provide them with a safe space to be vulnerable and promote and support student-led work to prevent violence. violence in the first place. “

And finally, there needs to be a focus on tracking children’s outcomes at every stage of the juvenile justice system. The data tells us that in the juvenile justice system, we treat certain groups of children more harshly than others, even though these groups do not commit more serious or more serious offenses than other children. If we want all children to grow up and become active members of the community, we must seriously address the disparities that affect our children of color.

An efficient and effective juvenile justice system holds children accountable, helps them grow up to be active members of their communities, and increases public safety. Our children don’t deserve the “flaws” and “scandals” depicted in the show – they deserve a system that works for them and their future.

Terry Brooks is the Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

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