FRANKFORT - Legislation aimed at revamping Kentucky's juvenile justice system by locking up fewer minors passed the state House by a wide margin Thursday, leaving it one step from reaching the governor's desk.
A major focus of the measure would steer more young offenders toward community-based treatment as an alternative to detention.
Supporters said the changes would yield about $24 million in savings over five years, while improving prospects for troubled youth.
Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said the current system dealing with minors too often presents "a pretty grim picture - a picture of incarcerating far too many low-level offenders and getting far too few results."
The measure passed the Democratic-run House on an 84-15 vote. It returns to the Republican-led Senate, which will consider minor changes by the House. Sen. Whitney Westerfield, the bill's sponsor, said he would urge the Senate to accept those changes and send the measure to Gov. Steve Beshear.
"This is the first and biggest step in reshaping Kentucky's juvenile code in decades," said Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville. "It's going to help not just the taxpayers but Kentucky's children for many, many years to come."
The bill aims to keep more kids out of detention centers for skipping school, running away or smoking.
Children committing those so-called "status offenses" represent about 13 percent of all youngsters held in Kentucky's detention centers, Tilley said. Those offenders could still end up in court and in detention if the bill becomes law, but only after early intervention through treatment, he said.
The treatment could include behavioral health, mental health and substance abuse services.
The bill's reach would go further, allowing youths accused of misdemeanors or lesser felonies to avoid detention time, unless they committed sex or weapons crimes or had one prior offense. The changes would not affect the most serious young offenders, Tilley said.
The measure calls for input from teams from the locality or region to track the progress of young offenders. Those teams, consisting of juvenile justice officials and other stakeholders, would help determine if a child needs more treatment or should go before a judge.
Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, spoke out against the bill, saying it would make it easier for young offenders.
"We're watering down the justice system today," he said.
Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, countered that the bill would give children who went astray a second chance.
"This is an investment for our kids, an investment for the future," he said.