All children deserve a chance to succeed, even those who’ve made mistakes. But when we emphasize detention over the supports that we know make a difference for kids, their ability to thrive is severely hampered and public safety in the commonwealth suffers.
That’s why lawmakers should fix harmful provisions in House Bill 3 before this legislation providing funds to reopen a Louisville facility moves forward. The House lawmakers advancing this legislation indicated an openness to hearing concerns, and there are several.
First, this bill would mandate detention for juveniles accused of certain offenses, regardless of any other details about their lives or their case. That’s a harsher treatment than what adults are subjected to. Study after study shows that locking kids up harms their mental and physical well-being, gets in the way of their education and is the most significant predictor of recidivism – more so than parental relationship, membership in a gang or carrying a weapon. Detaining kids who make mistakes increases their chances of becoming adults who make mistakes, rather than the productive, successful members of society we all want them to be.
Judges can already detain kids when they deem it necessary, and data from the Administrative Office of the Courts shows they do so in almost every case where it is recommended by law enforcement. But HB 3 would make detention mandatory for children charged with a “violent felony offense” (as defined in state statute) for up to 48 hours, pending a detention hearing.
Another provision of HB 3 would make it harder for these kids to move on from their mistakes by waiving confidentiality provisions that generally apply to juvenile records for kids who commit certain offenses. This unnecessary change to Kentucky law would make it harder for kids who have made mistakes that result in a juvenile record to access education, employment and housing, potentially denying them the second chance everyone deserves.
HB 3 also changes how the law deals with truancy cases, potentially resulting in more criminal charges of parents whose children miss too much school. Chronic school absenteeism is undoubtedly a concern, but it is often due to challenges kids are experiencing at home and/or school, and a need for services or supports. Criminalizing people who are already facing difficulties only serves to further destabilize families and is counterproductive to the goal of getting kids back in the classroom.
HB 3 does include an appropriation for a Jefferson County Youth Detention Center. Jefferson County has been without a consistently operating juvenile facility since Louisville Metro closed the facility it was operating in 2019, forcing kids to be transported to locations hours from their homes. But there’s no reason funding for a facility in Louisville must be tied to policy changes that increase youth detention and system involvement, and that make it more difficult for them to be successful adults.
When this bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers on all sides agreed that they want to help kids and said they’re open to modifying this bill. They should begin by rejecting proposals to increase penalties for children and prioritize investments in the community-based programs that are proven to help. Children who are connected to mentors, school, coaches and community are less likely to get into legal trouble again. But not all kids have access to those connections, especially if they live in areas ravaged by decades of disinvestment and racial inequities. Investing in these services is a much smarter and more humane alternative to the $539.31 per child, per day Kentucky spends on detention.
Some recently introduced legislation would help with these issues, including a bill that establishes a “juvenile trust fund” to provide community-based wraparound services and detention alternatives, another to create The Incarcerated Children’s Bill of Rights, guaranteeing them medical and mental health services, access to their families and other necessary rights, and a bill establishing a Juvenile Justice Review Board.
These are the types of steps Kentucky should take to build a juvenile system geared toward helping kids, not one that further entangles them with a failing system that does more harm than good.
This column ran in the Kentucky Lantern on Feb. 20, the Lexington Herald-Leader on Feb. 22, the State-Journal on Feb. 27 and the Richmond Register on March 1.