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Kentucky’s Complicated Struggle To Lock Up Fewer Kids On Minor Offenses

Police officer searching man
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Police officer searching man

Margie Beitz’s son had been gone nearly two weeks when she decided to file a court petition labeling him a runaway.

She and her husband were blindsided by his anger. The youngest of five children, Isaiah despised rules in a way the others never did. Doctors and inpatient treatments were temporary fixes until insurance money ran out, and the Shelby County family found no long-term answers.

When Isaiah, then 16, started refusing to come home, they felt as though they were out of options. He was picked up and detained for weeks in a cinder block room at the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

“We didn't like it,” Beitz said. “But we knew if he didn't go, that either somebody else was going to hurt him or he was going to hurt somebody else. He was already fuming at us.”

What did detention do to change her son?

“Not a thing,” she said.

Politicians, school administrators and advocates in Kentucky all agree that children shouldn’t be locked up for behavior problems. But there’s little agreement on whether or how to stop the practice.

Kentucky put more kids in detention in 2014 for non-criminal charges than any state except Washington, according to the most recent statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. At least half the states in the U.S. prohibit locking up children for noncriminal offenses. Even when states allow the practice, they use it rarely, except in a handful of states – Kentucky among them.

Federal data shows that children in Kentucky were detained more than 1,000 times in 2014 on so-called status offenses, which are offenses that can only be prosecuted on minors – things like running away, skipping school, or being deemed “beyond control.” For juveniles, these are the most minor of offenses.

“We were detaining far too many status offenders and also spending an inordinate amount of money -- with largely no results to show for it,” said John Tilley, Justice and Public Safety Cabinet secretary.

The number of status offenders in lockup has dropped by nearly half, but Tilley acknowledged that recent reforms have not gone far enough. Too many children are still in jail while waiting for attitudes in Kentucky to change, he said.

Children were still ordered to lockup more than 550 times in 2016 for status offenses or subsequently disobeying a judge’s order, according to a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of booking data.

They spend anywhere from a day to two months in lockup alongside other youth awaiting trial for crimes like assault, robbery or even murder.

Studies have long showed that as soon as that door locks behind a kid, they’re more likely to reoffend.

“It was very negative and damaging for these children who are placed in what essentially are juvenile prisons for not having committed a crime,” Tilley said.

A youth detention center is not technically a jail, but comparisons are hard to avoid.

Residents are not called inmates, but each door locks behind them as they walk with hands behind their backs. Youth workers are not called correctional officers, but they wear uniforms and carry walkie-talkies. Their rooms are not called cells, but they house a small cot, an aluminum toilet, cinderblock walls and a steel door.

At booking, youth strip down to their underwear and are searched for identifying marks. They shower with anti-lice shampoo and don sweatsuits. They attend classes and get an hour of “large muscle movement” each day, swapping Crocs for velcro sneakers. They are not allowed to tape pictures on their walls.

During a tour of Lincoln Village last year, DJJ officials said the residents are considered transient no matter how long they stay.

The detention center became the center of a national firestorm in January 2016 when 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died in her room.

Youth with behavior issues might stay for a while in intake, in a solo cell with no access to a common area. Gynnya was kept there after refusing to remove her hoodie during intake, and she was put in a restraint as a result.

Gynna died of a rare cardiac arrhythmia, one day after she was brought in. Gynnya was booked on a misdemeanor assault charge after a fight with her mother. Her case highlights a hole in the reform law. Though it’s intended to stop jailing youth for minor offenses, the law only addresses one part of the process.

She was legally detained immediately after her arrest for misdemeanor assault, even though she could not have been ordered to serve time if she were convicted.

The American juvenile justice system started pushing decades ago to stop punishing for this kind of behavior. In 1974, the federal government prohibited states from incarcerating kids for crimes like running away and skipping school.

But a few years later, the U.S. Congress granted a caveat: the valid court order exception, which allows a judge to charge and detain a juvenile for contempt if the youth defies an order. Often, the contempt stems from simply continuing the same behavior that landed a child in court in the first place.

Most states have stopped using the exception. Kentucky hasn’t. About 40 percent of the status offenders who spent time in detention last year were locked up under this exception, statistics show.

Comparable national data is not available yet. Nonetheless, Kentucky’s ranking as one of the nation’s worst offenders is unlikely to change much. As Kentucky has reduced its numbers, so too have many other states with high juvenile incarceration rates.

Advocates for reform argue that children who are running away, skipping school and otherwise acting out are often dealing with problems at home. Putting them into a detention center, locked down like a county jail, can exacerbate that trauma.

“Put a kid in detention because they're skipping school, and they’re not going to be in their home school,” said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition For Juvenile Justice. “It doesn’t fix the problem, it aggravates the problem.”

The reason why Kentucky incarcerates more minor offenders isn’t clear cut, but many point to a lack of other choices, especially in more rural and economically depressed areas. There are just four emergency youth shelters in a state a seven-hour drive wide.

Whitney Westerfield, an attorney and Republican legislator from Hopkinsville, sponsored a recent reform effort. He said the reform has front-loaded services that are helping more kids. But he acknowledges too many are still ending up in detention “for doing things that kids do.”

Westerfield and his colleagues examined research on the outcomes of various interventions, he said. Most programs had a positive impact or no discernible impact. The only one that made behavior worse, he said, was “the scared straight program.”

The reform effort spearheaded by Westerfield and Tilley, then a state legislator, has been in effect since July 2015. Judges can no longer keep youth under supervision indefinitely -- or incarcerate a child post-conviction for most first-time or minor offenses. When kids are charged with status offenses, they meet first with a coalition of case workers and attorneys in hopes of resolving the case without seeing a judge.

Laurie Dudgeon, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the change drastically increased the number of children who never step into a courtroom -- and therefore face no risk of detention.

Last year, Dudgeon said, more youth with minor offenses were sent to case management than courtrooms. But the reforms came without any money for new detention alternatives, and that means judges in rural areas are likely to have fewer options to detention at their disposal.

Tilley notes that while he’d like to see detention outlawed for those youth, he knows it’s not practical if there are still judges and police officers in the state who don’t have other safe placement choices in the middle of the night.

“We have to make sure we provide the resources to handle these children,” Tilley said.

Tilley’s department asked former Gov. Steve Beshear and current Gov. Matt Bevin for a few million each year to bolster programs, but those requests haven’t amounted to any funding increases. No money came with the reform, which predicted lower detention costs could bring $25 million to the effort within five years. But DJJ officials acknowledge that money hasn’t materialized yet, and won’t until several facilities are shut down.

DJJ Commissioner Carey Cockerell said phasing out a detention facility in Owensboro will start a trickle of support. He pledged to award about $1 million next year to community-based programs focused on prevention and early intervention, the first significant spending on the nearly two-year-old reform.

Jefferson County, Kentucky’s most populous, provides a glimpse of what treatment of status offenders could look like after a culture change sinks in.

Most Louisville family court judges no longer treat detention as an option for misdemeanors, said Family Court Judge Denise Brown. This is possible, though, because the resources in Louisville are strong. Brown works with the YMCA’s Safe Place Services program to meet with middle-school children at risk of truancy charges -- and their guardians. That program also operates an emergency shelter.

“I have never placed a child in detention for a status offense and I don't intend to,” Brown said. “We don't use detention as a way to get a child to do something, because it doesn’t work.”

Last month, 14-year-old Lloyd sat before a Jefferson County Family Court judge, smiling ear to ear. The judge and other court workers applauded him.

Lloyd had returned to school.

This was much different than his first court appearance, resulting from a truancy charge after he missed more than 20 days of school and refused to return. Lloyd was sent back to repeat seventh grade, he said, and he didn’t want to be there.

His aunt, Mica Smith, took him in during his truancy case. Some deaths in his family further sapped his motivation, and getting him to class grew harder until he transferred schools.

“He’s back on track now,” Smith said.

Truancy enforcement is shifting toward adult guardians, and a judge’s threat of removing Lloyd from his family played a big part in his returning to class – “so I won’t have to go to foster care, and so I can be better in life.”

But the detention option remains legal in Kentucky in part because school administrators like the choice -- and lobbied to keep it.

Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, said their advocacy for the choice doesn’t mean they want to have to use it.

“Our goal is not now, and never has been, to detain status offenders,” Young said.

Instead, Young said, administrators want to get kids back in school -- and he feels they need to preserve detention as a “last resort for students who we cannot get to school any other way after weeks or months of intervention.”

Young said he’s not aware of any data showing whether detention accomplishes this.

When Isaiah came home from Lincoln Village, he didn’t stay long. Charges quickly piled up and soon he was back in detention. From there, a judge ordered him to a treatment facility for youth in DJJ custody a three-hour drive from his parents.

His mother, Margie Beitz, sees small changes. Isaiah, now 17, hugs her more now, perhaps heartened by the distance. But his future still feels uncertain as his 18th birthday -- and adulthood -- looms.

She believes detention didn’t work for Isaiah, but she still assumes it must have benefits for other children. Sometimes she even wonders if he should have gone to detention sooner. Would it have scared 14-year-old Isaiah more than it emboldened him at 16?

“I still think we’d be at this place, don't get me wrong,” she said. “I really don't know what the answer is. But I know it’s frustrating.”

This article was produced as part of the John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellowship. 

The title of Safe Place Services has been corrected in this story.

Kate Howard can be reached at  khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546.  Data Reporter Alexandra Kanik contributed to this report.

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