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March 19, 2014

Rage against the cage

Members of a 2012 task force seeking to fix Kentucky’s juvenile justice system must have felt like they had pried open an icebox broken for nearly three decades. Putrid things grow in dark places, and the Unified Code — enacted in 1986 and hyper-punitively amended in the 1990s — is as malignant as a fridge that doesn’t unlatch from within. A generation of juveniles stumbled inside to be trapped too long.

The human costs and collateral damage are incalculable. The known costs are escalating beyond sustainability. Throughout the past decade, out-of-home placements have lengthened 31 percent for low-level offenders and 21 percent for felony offenders. The Juvenile Justice Department spends more than half of its $102 million budget maintaining facilities at a cost of $87,000 per bed per year. The task force cited a lack of community services and alternatives for driving “more expensive commitments.”

The task force didn’t seek to discard the Uniform Code “because there is so much good within,” it wrote in a request for more time to unravel the mess. But its December conclusions define an antiquated, wasteful, abusive system flawed by inequalities.

Nobody needs to call it a hideous travesty of justice that’s counter-productive — if not destructive. No need to foment a riot or persecute mobs and politicians who ignored the criminologist eggheads to join the “tough on crime” avengers for nuclear sentencing. Who knew the fallout would be so toxic? There’s a growing consensus that the trend is tougher on taxpayers, who pay for crimes, punishment and a system that punishes symptoms while it stigmatizes, dehumanizes and disables troubled taxpayers who become lifelong tax burdens. Revenge is as much a curse as rehab is a blessing.

Last Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield could barely mute his studied criticism of juvenile neglect. Kentucky has been “incredibly ineffective at addressing the underlying problems that are occurring in that child’s life.” His Senate Bill 200 proposes a major overhaul that champions community — from family and school involvement in case management to community service in lieu of detention. It stresses early intervention, accurately assessing risks and needs and providing resources accordingly. The measure also focuses “the most expensive resources on the most serious offenders.” Accountability would be enhanced by data collection and reporting to an oversight council.

Westerfield stressed that effective consequences match the offense as well as the offender — and pushed for consistency with a less stringent system.

“We found in Kentucky that a child is often on probation for a long period of time — much longer than an adult would be on a similar case. And they stay on there long enough that they eventually do something else. And that compounds the first error — and makes it worse — when, in fact, if they just did something else, they’d eventually get back into court anyway … So cases aren’t going to get neglected. But it will give kids a chance to grow and develop without being put in the same facility where we put the worst offenders of our juvenile population. The measure reflects every aspect of Kentucky Youth Advocates’ position on youth justice, which affirms, ‘All youth need opportunities to learn from their mistakes and develop into healthy, productive citizens.’”

This comprehensive, humanistic shift is led by enlightened research confirming that understanding and compassion tend to promote cost-effective public policy.

But the work of the Church of Second Chances remains undone. Senate Bill 200 cleared its first hurdle last week, late in the session. And despite bipartisan support, there are some wrinkles to iron out.

Evidently, not all of Westerfield’s GOP colleagues share his distaste for prolonged probation. Last month, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown gutted a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to felons who’ve served their debt to society. His substitute mandates a waiting period of five angelic years without so benign a lapse as a misdemeanor. By accident or design, Thayer’s restrictions would forever disenfranchise more than half of the 180,000 otherwise eligible Kentuckians.

Raoul Cunningham of Louisville’s NAACP called it an act of voter suppression. Maybe Thayer will redeem himself by restoring House Bill 70. Regardless, we forgive him — because it’s good policy.