Kentucky among nation's leaders in jailing children
Deborah Yetter and Jason Riley
Dec. 11, 2011
Kentucky judges are jailing youths for truancy and other noncriminal offenses at one of the highest rates in the nation, sidestepping federal and state laws and ignoring the near-unanimous agreement of experts and advocates that it harms children.
Last year, more than 1,500 Kentucky children were sent to juvenile jails for such “status offenses” as missing school or running away from home — offenses that aren’t considered criminal and don’t apply to adults.
Although that’s roughly 200 fewer Kentucky children jailed than in the previous year, advocates and detention officials say the number is far too high and the practice is no way to treat children whose problems generally stem from abuse, neglect, poverty, mental illness or other social ills.
It’s also expensive — Kentucky spent about $2 million last year to incarcerate status offenders, a fact that some detention officials argue is a poor use of their facilities.
“There has to be a better alternative than locking a child behind a door to get their attention,” said Hasan Davis, Kentucky’s deputy director of juvenile justice, who believes that runaways and truants have no business being housed alongside youths charged with more serious offenses, such as drug crimes, murder or rape.
“You can detain a youth all day. If what they are running away from hasn’t been addressed, they will go back to running away.”
Those being locked up are youths such as 18-year-old Alan Hack, a student from Grayson County whose struggles with depression prompted him to miss so much school that he was brought up on truancy charges.
Just a few days before graduation last June — while in school, taking a final exam — he was picked up by police, handcuffed and taken to a Hardin County juvenile detention center for failing to abide with a judge’s order not to miss more school.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” said Hack, now a freshman at Murray State University. “Here I was taking a final exam so I could finish my classes and graduate.”
Some officials say they have few choices
Frustrated school officials and judges in counties that are locking up status offenders say they’ve simply run out of options with some youths who refuse to follow a judge’s orders to attend school or stop running away.
“There are some that are so far beyond the control of the school system or their families, I don’t know what else is available” beyond finding them in contempt and ordering them held in a detention center, said Nelson District Judge Robert Heaton, president of the Kentucky District Judges Association.
Still, pressure is mounting to reduce the number of juveniles incarcerated despite committing no crime. Child advocates have teamed with detention officials to push for alternatives that don’t involve jail for status offenders, taking their case to legislators during a joint House-Senate committee last summer.
“We’re paying an enormous amount a day for juveniles. I recommend we get out of the business of housing status offenders,” said Terry Carl, the jailer in Northern Kentucky’s Kenton County, which led the state in jailing status offenders last year with 213.
Indeed, Kentucky pays $210 a day for each child it incarcerates, with counties picking up $94 of that daily expense. And the average jail stay for a status offender in Kentucky is five to six days, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“Research is clear — detaining status offenders is the least effective but the most expensive way to deal with these young people,” Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, told a legislative committee this year.
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, has filed a bill for the 2012 legislative session that would curb the number of juveniles sent to jail. She filed a similar bill last year that passed the House but died in the Senate.
The chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, say they are interested in the proposal.
“I think it should be studied,” Jensen said. “Maybe we can do something that makes sense.”
In 1974, Congress passed a law meant to provide uniform standards for states on how to manage juveniles in state courts.
A key provision of that law, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, prohibited locking up status offenders in secure detention. States that violated it stood to lose federal juvenile justice funds, according to research by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
But in 1980, the law was amended to give judges the option of placing status offenders in locked detention if they violated a court order, a practice the coalition calls “bootstrapping” the underlying offense into one where the child can be detained.
Critics say it is a loophole most states don’t exploit.
“We are among the last states to use detention,” Brooks said.
Three states account for 60% of detentions
In fact, only Washington state ranks higher than Kentucky in the rate of status offenders it detains, with Texas in third place, according to research by Kentucky Youth Advocates, which is lobbying to eliminate the practice.
The three states account for nearly 60 percent of all status-offender detentions, according to 2007 data collected by federal juvenile justice officials.
Indiana allows detention of status offenders but limits it to children with repeat offenses for truancy or running away, said Laurie Elliott of the Indiana Youth Law T.E.A.M., an independent group that monitors the state’s compliance on juvenile law.
She said several hundred youths were detained last year for that reason in Indiana.
In Kentucky, Davis said the state’s juvenile detention centers must accept status offenders sent by court order, even if they would rather not.
“We want to be clear — we believe status offenders is a huge issue,” said Davis, who testified before a joint session of the House-Senate Judiciary Committee in June. “It shouldn’t have to come to being locked up.”
Judges across Kentucky differ about jailing status offenders, and rates vary widely — from Jefferson County, where Family Court judges, by policy, avoid jailing offenders, to Kenton County, with its state-leading 213 jailings in 2010.
“In Kentucky, if you go out into our community and say, ‘How can we solve this problem?’, the answer a lot of times is, ‘Well, we need to put more kids in jail,’ ” said Robert Wiederstein, a district judge in Henderson County, where officials are working with the state Department of Juvenile Justice on a project to reduce its numbers of jailed juveniles drastically.
“So there is this fundamental disconnect between what the research is and what a lot of people believe,” he said.
Ken Kippenbrock, director of pupil personnel for Covington Independent in Kenton County, argues that the school system’s practice of filing court petitions on children who miss class — and the threat of detention — is effective. He said 250 to 300 students are referred to court each year for missing six or more days — and about half of those straighten up without a contempt charge.
“What we are afraid of is they (the judges) will take detention off the table altogether and not replace it,” Kippenbrock said.
“We do it because we don’t know what else to do and in many cases it does work.”
Jefferson Family Court Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald disputes that. “Detention? That doesn’t work,” she said. “You have to look at the issues behind what’s going on.”
Steven Teske, a juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Ga., and a national expert on status offenders, agreed that detaining children only raises the risk of them dropping out of school and committing another offense.
“You’re not helping them; you are making them worse,” he told a gathering of court and school officials in Covington in September. “Your detention centers are nothing but deviancy training grounds.”
Jefferson County uses separate youth shelter
Many officials have the power to affect the fate of such children, including judges, prosecutors, school officials and court-designated workers — court employees who serve as sort of gatekeepers to youths who enter the court system.
But Patrick Yewell, who oversees juvenile services for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said status offenders fall into a legal gap in Kentucky. Youths charged with criminal offenses are turned over to juvenile justice officials, while social service officials often take custody of children deemed subject to abuse and neglect, placing them under state supervision or in foster care.
State law doesn’t clearly address where status offenders fit, Yewell said. “It’s never been settled.”
As a result, he said, there’s no consensus on dealing with them, and fewer solutions and services for them — even though they share many of the same backgrounds and emotional hurdles as children who wind up in jail or foster care.
“A lot of times we’re basically talking about the same kids,” Yewell said.
Advocates say it’s time for the state to come up with a better plan and more solutions for status offenders, ranging from basic social services for troubled families to more alternative education programs for youths.
“Here in Kentucky, we can put our heads together,” said Clarence Williams, director of Jefferson County’s detention center, which operates a separate shelter for status offenders called Phoenix House. “We can come up with solutions.”
At Phoenix House, youths are housed in a more homelike setting with comfortable living and recreational areas. They are not locked in and leave to attend school each day.
“It’s a great program,” Williams said. “Family court uses it quite a bit.”
On a recent November afternoon, the dozen teens at the center included a petite, 17-year-old girl charged as a status offender for running away from what she said was an abusive situation at home. She was staying at the center, which she said she likes, while state social service officials investigated.
“I was running away for help,” she said. “I don’t think I belong behind bars.”
Lawmakers cite increased attention to the issue, ranging from efforts in local communities to find better ways to handle status offenders to possible changes in state law.
“It’s obviously an area that needs to be worked on,” said Jensen, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. “... The question is what is the best way to do it?”
Flood’s bill — similar to the one she filed last year — would require providing more detailed information to judges about a youth’s circumstances, having alternative sites for detention and limiting the time that court orders issued to address problems — such as running away or missing school — would be in effect.
Status offenders are most often detained now for violating a judge’s order — and a single order may last several years until a child turns 18. Any infraction in the meantime could land the child in detention.
Davis said some status offenders spend as long as 90 days in custody — and can then be jailed again if a judge decides.
On a recent visit at the Lincoln Village Youth Development Center in Elizabethtown, Davis observed juveniles taking part in classes taught by a Hardin County teacher in a common area just outside their 8-by-10-foot cells, each dressed in gray shirts, loose green pants and sandals, asking permission for any movement.
One young female remained locked in her cell during classes because of a behavior issue, sitting on her bed.
“The Department of Juvenile Justice isn’t the natural place to be for most of these young people,” Davis said. “What they need are services.”
Tilley, chairman of the House judiciary committee, said he expects lawmakers to address the issue in 2012, more mindful that any legislation must take into account that dealing with status offenders is a complex problem, involving children who may have experienced abuse, neglect or other problems.
“The issue is not as simple as it might seem,” he said. “It’s not as simple as just saying we can’t detain status offenders.”