A Step in the Right Direction: Kentucky Legislature Passes Status Offense Reform

Senate Bill 200 passed the Kentucky General Assembly last week and is waiting on a signature from Gov. Beshear. This bill provides somewhat of an overhaul to portions of the juvenile code.

I wasn’t lying when I told you guys that I am a legislative watcher in my last blog post.

The main focus of the bill seems to be on what we in the court system refer to as “status offenses.” This is just a phrase used to describe quasi-criminal offenses that juveniles can be charged with that adults cannot. Examples of status offenses include habitual truancy, beyond control of parents/school, habitual runaway and various tobacco related offenses. In Jefferson County we most often deal with the truancy, the beyond control of parents and the runaways.

If you speak to just about anyone who works with those families dealing with a status offense charge, you’ll know that the process is often frustrating, disheartening and inadequate. Most of the children that I have worked with on the status docket were or are children on the dependency, abuse and neglect docket. The only difference is that they get older and the law shifts the fault of their poor behavior to them, rather than their circumstance. Certainly, the actors on the individual status dockets do their best to address the needs of the family in front of them, but unfortunately, we only begin to scratch the service. (A moment to brag on some of the Jefferson County status workers (JCPS liaisons, prosecutors, defense attorneys, therapists and social workers): these people have heart. I have seen them spend their own money to buy Christmas gifts for families and to help them meet their school dress codes. They call in favors to get kids in the right school programs and step on toes if it means just a chance at success for a particular child. It’s pretty amazing to see.)

The process is much like what you would see in a criminal courtroom, right down to the appointment of counsel for the defendant children. Arraignments and conditions of pre-trial release are followed by trials or plea agreements and dispositions. The most severe penalty for the status offense charge that a juvenile can receive is to be removed from their home and placed into a foster home. Under our juvenile code, now strengthened by the passage of Senate bill 200, a child can never be sent to detention for failing to attend school or being rebellious at home. (Status offenders who are placed in juvenile detention get there through a contempt charge and can be sentenced to as much as 6 months in lock up.)

Unfortunately, Kentucky ranks amongst the worst in the country for the incarceration rates of status offenders. The last report that I read had Kentucky ranked second only to Washington, while Texas rounded out the top three worst offenders. Over the course of my practice, I have often wondered how locking up a child who doesn’t go to school in the same facilities as those who are charged with major felonies like rape and murder, would benefit the child, much less the community.

I once heard Clarence Williams, the director of the Louisville Metro Youth Detention Services, eloquently state the issue as, “we should only lock up the kids who scare us, not the ones that annoy us.” I’ve always loved that quote, so much so that I know I have used it during more than one detention hearing. Status offenders are just that—kids who annoyed an adult. The purpose behind these laws is certainly noble—to push our Commonwealth’s children towards success. However, early interventions with these families should be the focus, and we should move away from the punitive approach to status offenses.

So what’s the solution? I have to say I think Senate bill 200 is certainly a step in the right direction. From the information I have been reading, the bill provides funding and support for early intervention programs for non-violent offenders and puts in place a mechanism to evaluate what is working. It strengthens the mandate that status offenders not be sent to secure detention facilities. It also will save close to $24 million over the next five years, which is pretty incredible.

However, if I had it my way, status offenses would be abolished altogether. Senate bill 200 marks progress in our juvenile justice system, but it’s only a first step. We’ve got a long way to go.

About Courtney Preston Kellner

Courtney Preston Kellner is a partner at Kellner Green, PLLC. Courtney focuses her practice in the area of family law.