The bipartisan working group on Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) wrapped up last week, and the legislature heads back into session tomorrow. There are several key issues to keep in mind as the policy conversations related to children and crime continue to unfold in the 2023 Kentucky General Assembly:
- Claims of a sudden surge in youth crime as justification for harsher penalties are unfounded;
- The recent incidents in several of Kentucky’s regional juvenile detention facilities are largely due to longstanding and well documented staffing and budget issues that need to be addressed immediately; and
- Kentucky’s efforts to divert kids away from secure detention facilities have been successful, and more efforts to divert and fund community based supports for youth are needed.
Claims of a surge in youth crime are unfounded, and it’s important to critically examine data before drawing conclusions
Recent incidents in several Kentucky Regional Juvenile Detention Centers (RJDCs) have led some policymakers to make claims about a surge in youth crime led by a new “type” of kid in our communities, supposedly of an unprecedented violent nature. While the concerning details of these incidents within juvenile facilities are factually based, the discourse drawing broad, unfounded conclusions about the state of Kentucky kids is not. It’s reminiscent of the harmful, racist, anti-urban “superpredator” mythologizing that took hold in the 1990s and led to devastating policy changes — including states passing laws allowing more children to be tried as adults and many hundreds of juveniles being sent to prison for life.
Crime — especially violent crime — can become a salient issue in policy conversations for reasons completely separate from what data shows is actually happening in communities. Beliefs about crime and safety in our communities are often strongly shaped by statements made in media reports and political campaigns that are not based in actual fact. For instance, violent crime was a big focus of many political campaigns leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, and six in 10 registered voters said violent crime was a “very important” issue in congressional elections. However, two national data sources, including the National Crime Victimization Survey, which is more reliable than the more commonly used FBI data as described in this report, showed no recent increase in the violent crime rate.
Policymaking must be based on reputable data and analysis about what problems need to be addressed, and not news headlines. Reliable data does not support recent claims about youth crime in Kentucky and in fact shows that, based on various measures, offenses by kids have broadly declined in recent years.
Here’s what the data actually shows:
- Nationally, violence among youth did not increase during the pandemic according to an analysis of numerous national data sources by The Sentencing Project.
- In Kentucky, based on data from the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC):
- Juvenile complaints referred by Court Designated Workers (CDWs) have declined in recent years, as shown in Figure 1 below, including those with charges that fall under the broad category of “violent felony offense” in Kentucky statute, as shown in Figure 2. (The CDW is part of the AOC and performs the initial review of all juvenile charges. This review is the stage at which many youth are diverted away from the court system; for youth who cannot be diverted, the CDW refers the case to the court.)
- As shown in Figure 2, while complaints filed with CDWs containing “violent” charges are somewhat higher in calendar year 2022 than in the previous few years (which were impacted by the courts being shut down due to COVID, and the corresponding increase following the courts reopening), the general trend is still downward and the number of complaints remain much lower than where they were going back to 2007-2012.
- In addition, as shown in Figure 1, it is notable that the share of complaints filed with CDWs are not disproportionately coming from Jefferson County, including those with “violent felony offense” charges in recent years, as shown in Figure 2. This contradicts the narrative that Jefferson County youth are driving a violent crime surge in the state. And the share of these “violent felony offense” complaints that are from Jefferson County has declined over time as well.
- And juvenile complaints for homicides aren’t on the rise compared to previous years, in Jefferson County or the rest of the state, according to AOC data.
When there is actually an upward trend in offenses researchers emphasize that it’s important to be aware of what the statistics can and cannot tell us. For instance, a short-term increase in complaints or arrests could be for a variety of reasons and we should not jump to conclusions about the cause/s.
Despite this data, recent news reports in Kentucky with provocative headlines may reinforce the idea that juvenile crime is on the rise — and these news pieces influence what policymakers and the public believe. As an example, here are a two recent headlines along with an explanation of the “data” (or lack thereof) they were based on:
- “‘We’re getting tired of the crime’: Juvenile justice bill to head back to Frankfort”
This news story (including the headline) quotes a lawmaker’s perspective, and there is an interview with an advocate who makes counter claims that are not reflected in the headline. The focus of the story is an upcoming legislative proposal. No data is cited.
- “More juveniles committing serious crimes in Kentucky”
This report describes a dataset that supposedly shows that the number of complaints against kids for gun-related crimes is on the rise. This dataset actually shows CDW complaints with gun possession charges, which is something very different than “more juveniles committing serious crimes.” The trendlines in the dataset aren’t entirely straightforward, but do not seem to show a major spike or surge in gun possession complaints — and the data as presented does not enable one to draw any conclusions about “juveniles committing serious crimes” or about “gun-related crimes” other than that the possession of a gun by a minor is a crime.
These types of news stories in Kentucky and across the nation have resulted in calls by policymakers to enact harsh penalties or scale back on successful juvenile system reforms to address this “new juvenile crime wave.” But when the data is examined it is apparent that claims about a crime wave are exaggerated. Policymakers should rely on the data in moving forward rather than the rhetoric.
Lack of safety in facilities is due to longstanding understaffing and underfunding
Rather than an increase in the violent nature of Kentucky youth, the unsafe conditions in several of the state’s regional detention centers are largely due to chronic and severe understaffing and lack of state funding. The closure of the Louisville detention center in 2019 has also contributed to the current situation.
Current situation is the result of longstanding issues with a lack of staffing and oversight
With fewer kids detained as a result of Kentucky’s juvenile system reform law, Senate Bill 200 (SB 200) passed in 2014, discussed in more detail below, it would seem that adequately staffing facilities would be easier; however, this has not been the case. As the number of youth committed to DJJ declined, some facilities were closed, but the fixed operating costs of the remaining facilities continued. And as time went on, DJJ began having difficulties staffing facilities due to low salaries and reduced benefits. The staffing issues that continue today were clearly identified in a report prepared by the Children’s Law and Policy Center at the request of DJJ in 2017 following the death of a girl held in the Lincoln Village Detention Center:
“Staffing shortages, high staff turnover, and forced overtime are hindering the ability to supervise youth in a safe and humane manner.
The team is very concerned with DJJ’s ability to recruit and retain qualified and dedicated youth workers. Relatively low pay, coupled with the demands of a very difficult job, meant that there was a high rate of staff turnover in two of the three facilities we assessed. The lack of mental health resources, as outlined above, also contributes to a feeling of burn-out among line staff, as line staff are expected to manage youth with complex mental and behavioral health problems. High rates of staff turnover have meant that staff who do remain are expected to work double-shifts on a regular basis, which contributes to levels of stress and exhaustion. These staffing concerns are a serious problem that jeopardize the safety of youth and staff at the facility. They also contribute to the extensive use of room confinement…”
These staffing issues were also identified in the DJJ’s state budget requests submitted in 2017, 2020 and 2021. Despite receipt of this 2017 report, numerous legislative committee hearings, the passage of three budgets and continuing reports of critical staffing shortages at DJJ, very little has been done to address these issues. Inadequate wages and benefits at DJJ are linked to a broader unwillingness to increase state salaries, including no raises for 10 out of 12 years for state employees, and the end of the traditional defined benefit pension plan for public employees starting in 2014.
Testimony from Justice Cabinet leaders and first-hand accounts from people who worked in the facilities described in several news stories make it clear that children with serious mental health issues are not receiving services, and that youth are often locked in their rooms for extended periods of time due to understaffing. Further, many of the kids in these facilities are hours away from home so their families and attorneys cannot easily visit. It is important to understand that these conditions and the many other damaging effects of detention on youth contribute to the incidents that have been reported at the facilities, rather than labeling the youth as inherently violent people.
Solutions being implemented by the executive branch to address the immediate crisis include raises for staff, improvements to buildings and additional training, although staffing up and improving buildings will take time. Other immediate and hopefully temporary measures include the concerning steps of hiring a former adult corrections prison warden to advise on security, stationing of Kentucky State Police Officers in three regional juvenile detention facilities and arming staff with “defensive equipment.” Juvenile facilities should not be modeled after prisons and jails, as children are significantly different from adults and require a different mindset from those in charge. These measures are considered to be necessary at this time to keep kids and staff safe because of the severe and chronic understaffing in the facilities and lack of other immediate options, but they should not be the centerpiece of any long term plan for the DJJ. The focus instead should be on providing the programming, treatment and services that have been lacking due to underfunding both in the facilities and in the community.
Closing of the Louisville Juvenile Detention Facility has contributed to juvenile system difficulties
The DJJ operates regional detention centers across the state. When the DJJ detention system was created Jefferson County already had a facility and elected to continue operating it with some funding support from the DJJ. That all changed when Jefferson County closed the facility in 2019 due to budget cuts and the pressure of rising pension costs caused by state directives. That left responsibility for Jefferson County youth with the DJJ. Also lacking resources, the DJJ did not have the capacity to operate the facility and instead repurposed a former day treatment center to serve as a regional detention center for Jefferson County. That facility was closed in November of 2022 after several incidents related to insufficient staffing and because the physical facility was not safe to continue housing youth there.
As a result, youth from Jefferson County are now sent to understaffed RJDCs several hours away, which creates issues for family and attorney visits, among other difficulties. The repurposed facility in Louisville recently reopened after some renovations and will hold male youth under 14 accused of minor offenses, which means female youth and male youth from Jefferson County that are older or charged with more serious crimes are still being sent hours away. There is a lot of support for a Louisville detention facility so kids won’t be separated from their families and community, and it makes sense that the most populous county in Kentucky would have a facility. But it is also important that the facility does not result in the increased detention of kids.
Kentucky’s effort to divert kids from detention have succeeded , and the current situation calls for more diversion and community based supports
Kentucky has dramatically reduced the number of kids in detention facilities due to the passage of SB 200. The goals of the legislation were to divert youth charged with lower level offenses away from the court system, reduce out of home placements and reduce the number of youth placed under the supervision of the DJJ. These goals were to be accomplished by offering supervision, services and supports in the community through DJJ and the CDW offices, focusing the most intensive resources on serious offenders, and improving data collection and oversight to ensure that the policies and programs work.
Two recent evaluations of the effectiveness of these policy changes, one from the Urban Institute and one from the federal Office of Justice Programs (OJP) (which provided support for SB 200) demonstrate that the legislation has significantly reduced the number of youth involved in the juvenile system and improved rates of re-offending; however, the evaluations also note that persistent racial disparities that have historically existed in the system were not addressed by the reforms.
With regard to the community services required by SB 200, the report from OJP mentioned above describes the lack of funding for community-based programs following the law’s enactment, an “unfunded mandate” that could have unintended consequences:
“Although the decline in the number of cases committed to DJJ is promising, lack of appropriate programs or available services for youth, in particular high risk youth, may create unintended consequences. As shared by stakeholders in the Implementation Evaluation, one of the unintended consequences of the reform was the lack of community-based programs that would cater to the needs of youth, in particular high risk and high needs youth. As an unfunded mandate, SB 200 significantly changed procedures for working with youth, but did not necessarily provide additional resources that would enhance community-based services. Already facing significant resource limitations, community based service providers, especially in rural areas, do not have the capacity to meet the needs of youth now going through diversion.”
Youth detention is harmful and does not support public safety
A large and established body of research shows that detention is incredibly harmful for kids and does not make communities safer, and supports the idea that Kentucky should make every effort to pursue alternatives. Detention is also very expensive, which can squeeze out funding for needed investments in solutions that actually work. At the same time, investments in youth detention increase the likelihood that kids will re-offend.
Research consistently shows that detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being, their education and their employment later in life. For instance, a large share of kids in juvenile detention facilities have unmet mental and behavioral health needs, and the conditions of detention worsen kids’ mental health and put kids at greater risk of self-harm (and when suicidal kids are put in isolation they are further endangered). Long-term economic outcomes for children are worsened by detention and incarcerating large numbers of young people can have a negative effect on the economic wellbeing of their communities.
Youth detention does not reduce overall crime in communities and can actually make them less safe. In fact, youth detention is the most significant predictor of recidivism – more so than parental relationship, membership in a gang or carrying a weapon – due to the many harms of detention described above. A recent peer-reviewed study found that the pretrial or pre-adjudication detention of youth increases kids’ likelihood of committing a new felony within one year by 33% and the likelihood of committing a new misdemeanor by 11%. Each day spent detained in a secure facility is associated with a 1% increase in risk of re-offending per day, according to the analysis. The majority of Kentucky kids held in the state’s RJDCs are being held prior to trial or adjudication, with the remaining share detained there for probation violations or as punishment for a public offense or for status offenses like truancy.
Kentucky should work to move even more kids out of detention facilities, and better fund alternatives
Even though SB 200 has led to decreases in the number of kids held in Kentucky’s detention facilities, there continue to be kids held there for “contempt of court” for status offenses (which include charges that would not be an offense if committed by an adult such as truancy, running away from home, and possession of alcohol by a minor), as punishment for not following conditions of probation, and pretrial/pre-adjudication for misdemeanors and Class D felonies (the lowest level felony classification in Kentucky). The legislature should make further efforts to eliminate the presence of kids with these sorts of charges from detention in these facilities.
There are proven strategies that prevent the overuse of detention and its harms. Research-based solutions to violence include investing in prevention through community interventions and services and addressing root causes, such as improving access to community based mental health services, structured after school programs and making it easier for kids and families to find and use services in the community. Yet there are currently gaps in the accessibility of community services for Kentucky kids through DJJ, and also the availability of services in the community that would prevent kids from becoming system involved in the first place. These investments are smarter alternatives than the $539.31 per child per day Kentucky spends for the detention of kids in one of Kentucky’s JRDCs, according to the most recent state budget request.
Kentucky needs to build on past successes and proven strategies, address short-term funding needs, and not make the problem worse
The controversy around the state’s juvenile justice system has arisen from unsafe facility issues created by underfunding and understaffing which must be addressed in the short term with more resources. And the need for a facility in Jefferson County is broadly supported and accepted. At the same time, there is no case for increased youth detention or criminal penalties in Kentucky, and a false narrative about a more violent generation of youth is not based on analysis of the data. SB 318 (2022), which came very close to passing last year, would have increased youth detention and made penalties harsher, and a similar proposal is expected this legislative session.
Kentucky should instead prioritize providing more funding for front end and community based programs so that more kids can be diverted from facilities and receive services in their communities. The state should address racial inequities in the system, and continue to build on its recent success with increased diversion efforts. And it should make additional investments in programs and services that address the root causes to prevent kids from becoming system involved in the first place.