April 16, 2014 — We complained in this space last month that the General Assembly, specifically the Senate, was headed down the wrong path in its handling of Senate Bill 200, a carefully-crafted, broadly supported effort to modernize Kentucky’s juvenile justice laws.
The focus was on minor lawbreakers, the so-called “status offenders” who violate laws that don’t apply to adults, such as skipping school or running away from home.
Months of work by a statewide task force was in danger of being discarded but some the key provisions were modified and restored by the House.
As a result, the amended bill finally won passage Monday, the next to last day of the 2014 regular session.
We are assuming that Gov. Steve Beshear will either sign the bill after the lawmakers go home or allow it to become law without his signature.
Truancy is the primary reason that our kids end up in court as status offenders.
Poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness by adults are said to be the most common reasons kids cut school and end up in court.
Most states already have stopped jailing status offenders.
The new law will encourage community-based alternatives for children younger than 18 who are charged with "status" offenses.
Some judges now sentence such non-violent offenders to detention centers where they are jailed with youths who committed serious crimes.
The bill also requires increased data collection on juvenile offenders and a state system to track juvenile recidivism rates.
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the bill’s sponsor, said the change would benefit young offenders at less cost to taxpayers, possibly saving the state $25 million in the next few years.
In our view, the original language to require community-based alternatives, rather than just encourage that approach, should have been retained.
Hopefully, this partial solution will be expanded in future legislative sessions.