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Ky. House gets juvenile justice bill with tougher rules for most serious charges

The bill would require youths charged with a serious offense to be evaluated for eligibility in cognitive behavioral therapy or substance abuse treatment


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By John Cheves
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — House Republicans sent a juvenile justice bill to the House floor on Wednesday, calling for tougher treatment of many youths charged with serious crimes and the parents of chronic truants while also funding the reopening of a juvenile detention center in Louisville.

But critics said House Bill 3 does not include the $45 million requested by Gov. Andy Beshear for pay raises or security improvements at the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice or stronger mental health and education services or independent oversight of juvenile detention centers recommended by House Democrats.

Cracking down even harder on youths in trouble isn’t going to fix the problems with Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, they said.

“There is nothing to suggest that beating a child harder with a bigger stick actually helps them be a better adult,” the Rev. Kent Gilbert of the Kentucky Council of Churches told the House Judiciary Committee. “And our whole goal is to create better adults.”

Supporters of the House bill objected to some of that criticism. They said the bill does address mental health. It would require youths who are charged with a serious offense to be evaluated for eligibility in cognitive behavioral therapy or substance abuse treatment while they are detained after an arrest.

And reopening the juvenile detention center in Louisville would keep Jefferson County youths in that community, near their families, rather than requiring a 206-mile round-trip to the next-closest juvenile detention center in Adair County, where there have been riots, supporters of the bill said.

“This is a very important bill. It must pass,” said state Rep. Jason Nemes, R- Louisville.

[EARLIER: Ky. officials ask lawmakers for $45M, new laws to fix juvenile justice system]

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R- Louisville, said he expects to see at least one more GOP bill during this legislative session to address problems inside DJJ. That bill probably will start in the Senate, Bratcher said.

The committee voted 15-to-1 to approve Bratcher’s House bill, with two representatives passing.

The bill would:

  • Require up to 48 hours of detention, not including weekends or holidays, for youths charged with a “violent felony offense,” which includes murder, manslaughter, assault, rape, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, arson and escape. Under current law, court officials have the authority to order a youth detained or released after an arrest.
  • Waive the confidentiality of juvenile court records for youths convicted of a violent felony offense for five years after the conviction, so they could be found during criminal background checks by prospective employers and others. If youths are not convicted of another serious offense during that five-year window, then their records would be sealed.

    Several lawmakers raised concerns about this part of the bill. Scott West, an attorney with the state’s Department of Public Advocacy, testified that commercial data brokers collect information from court records. Once a court record has entered a commercial database, it can remain there for the rest of a person’s life, West said.

    Bratcher said he’s willing to discuss possible changes to the confidentiality portion of his bill.

  • Require juvenile courts to regularly follow up on serious truancy cases, where youths are not attending school despite being assigned by the courts to a diversion program. A parent who intentionally fails to cooperate with a court order on school attendance could be charged with the Class A misdemeanor of unlawful transaction with a minor in the third-degree, punishable by up to a year in jail.
  • Provide $8.9 million to upgrade and reopen a 40-bed juvenile detention center in downtown Louisville.

DJJ is slowly reopening a detention center in the Louisville suburb of Lyndon that it closed late last year, but that building will be limited to the youngest and lowest-security youths because of its physical limitations, state officials say. Lawmakers want a facility in Louisville that can detain the city’s older and highest-security youths.

Also on Wednesday, two House Democrats from Louisville — state Reps. Keturah Herron and Lisa Willner — announced several pieces of legislation they are offering to reform the juvenile justice system.

They include a Bill of Rights for Incarcerated Children, such as the right to quality education and mental health services, and a citizens’ oversight panel that would monitor how youths are treated from the time they are arrested to the time they are released from juvenile detention facilities.

Willner said she was upset to read news reports of youths locked in their cells for extended periods in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers, denied much in the way of basic services or even human contact. So far, Willner said, most of the proposed fixes offered by Beshear and Republican lawmakers are focused on tightening security and strengthening punishments, not improving services for the youths.

Beshear, who stands for re-election in November, has been on the defensive in recent months following riots and assaults at several DJJ facilities around the state.

The Herald-Leader has reported that chronic under-staffing at DJJ for years has resulted in an atmosphere of violence and neglect, with both employees and youths saying that they don’t feel safe. In some cases, facilities have kept youths locked up in their cells as a management tool.

NEXT: Lawmakers call for investigation, new leadership at Ky. juvenile justice agency

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