In 2010, the state of Kentucky had 852 youths in confinement, a rate of 186 per 100,000. While this number may not seem very large, David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Right on Crime signatory, appropriately gasped at the cost of $87,000 a year per youth which, using these numbers, equates to $74,124,000 a year. Read Keene's OpEd here. More concerning than just the money is the mounds of data demonstrating that the result of this expense is likely to be increased recidivism and expanding costs.
Thankfully, Senator Whitney Westerfield, Representative John Tilley and members of both chambers have exercised leadership in moving Kentucky toward a more effective juvenile justice system with decreased cost. On April 14th, a juvenile justice reform bill (SB 200) passed the General Assembly and is on its way to Governor Beshear for his signature. The goal of the bill is to “maintain public safety and achieve savings through the use of evidence-based treatment programs.” The bill will ensure better outcomes for youths and families while protecting public safety with reduced spending.
On April 28 the bill was signed into law. Now Kentucky will be faced with deciding which programs to implement across the state. With the leadership of, Executive Director, Dr. Terry Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates has done a tremendous job advocating for youth and alternatives to incarceration. They specifically recommend Functional Family Therapy and Multisystemic Therapy as proven alternatives. These recommendations are consistent with the findings of Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development, an initiative out of the University of Colorado applying rigorous research standards in evaluating over 1,100 programs.
Additionally, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy has evaluated many of the evidence-based programs and determined their cost effectiveness. Functional Family Therapy and Multisystemic Therapy are also supported by their assessment as among the most cost effective programs for juvenile offenders. These recommendations would serve as an efficient launch to reform, and the resources cited would be valuable in considering the inclusion of any additional programs.
Furthermore, Kentucky is not the first state to embark on the journey of reform. It would also be instructive for the state to review their goals and compare those with the results of states such as Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan, among others, who have implemented an array of evidence-based practices and reduced juvenile crime while saving millions of dollars a year.
We applaud the government and people of Kentucky for taking the bold step of reforming an ineffective and costly system. Follow the data, and you will be rewarded with reduced crime at a reduced cost. Hopefully, other states will watch and learn.
If you are curious about how many youth your state locks up, you can find out at the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.