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Juvenile justice reform bill awaits Beshear

BY ANDREA MOORE amoore@paducahsun.com

A bill that will establish community-based programs, focused on intervention and treatment instead of detention for non-violent juvenile offenders, awaits the signature of Gov. Steve Beshear. He has indicated support for the reform measure.

Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, who sponsored the bill, said it would bring the biggest changes in decades to Kentucky's juvenile justice system.

"This is a good bill that will address inequities in sentencing for juveniles," Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, said.  "The juveniles that commit status offenses (such as running way, smoking or truancy) do not need to be locked up."

Senate Bill 200 allows for funds as they become available to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to be used to fund community-based programs that will reduce detention rates and save the juvenile justice system money.

Stacy Floden, director of program services for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, believes the bill will put greater emphasis on involving families at an earlier stage and produce better outcomes, saving the state up to $24 million over five years.

Ninety percent of funds will be utilized for grants to judicial districts to establish community-based sanction and treatment programs.    

A local committee for each judicial district will be responsible for the grant application and implementation of the community programs.  In order for the grants to be renewed, each district will have to show a 20 percent reduction in detention admissions or a 10 percent reduction if the prosecution shows more cases are being handled through diversion programs.  

"It will lead toward a system driven by data and the research on programs and policies that are proven effective at changing behavior and improving public safety," Floden said. 

"The idea is to do more sooner, so we don't have to spend as much time on the back end repairing the harm that the system has done," Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Hasan Davis said.  

Marshall County Family Court Judge Rob Mattingly believes that having a community-based program for juveniles would be a wonderful alternative to detention.  

"The vast majority of status offenses are not appropriate to send to detention," said Mattingly.  

However, Mattingly does have questions about getting juveniles' families to cooperate with the community-based programs.

"Many children you see in status court have other issues going on at home," said Mattingly.  "Sometimes it is hard to get families to cooperate because those issues are so big."

The bill also calls for limiting the time a juvenile can be sentenced to detention or out-of-home placement. If a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent for a misdemeanor, the maximum time for the out-of-home placement is four months.  If the juvenile is adjudicated delinquent for a Class D felony the maximum time for out-of-home placement is eight months, excluding sexual offenses.  

"I am hopeful that the community-based sanction and treatment programs will be beneficial to juveniles locally," Caldwell County Attorney James S. "Bridgie" Miller said.  "However, I am concerned about time limits in the bill for juveniles committing public offenses and what type of message that is sending to children in regard to accountability."  

According to Floden, the bill calls for an oversight council that will track implementation milestones, review data and continue to consider juvenile justice issues not addressed by this legislation.

Contact Andrea Moore, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8684.

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