In 2011, it was reported that Kentucky had one of the highest rates in the country for sending juveniles to jail for noncriminal offenses such as running away and truancy. The year before that meant 1,500 adolescents were incarcerated at the staggering cost of $2 million. “There has to be a better alternative than locking a child behind a door to get their attention,” said Kentucky’s Deputy Director of Juvenile Justice Hasan Davis.
The state government decided there is—evidence-based treatment programs.
In a move to improve its juvenile-justice system while at the same time lowering costs, the state under the leadership of Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R) and Rep. John Tilley (D) passed a reform bill on April 14, 2014. The purpose of the legislation is to “maintain public safety and achieve savings through the use of evidence-based treatment programs.” It is also aimed at ensuring better outcomes for youths and families while protecting public safety and reducing spending.
On signing the bill into law, Gov. Steve Beshear said it “represents an important first step in addressing juvenile justice reform in our Commonwealth, and gives us the opportunity to address the underlying issues that are often the cause of young people acting out. The result is less crime, smarter spending and better outcomes for Kentucky’s most-troubled kids.”
Most reforms will take effect in 2015. It has been acknowledged that Kentucky must spend time critically examining the array of programs offered to find those that best meet its needs. Many programs call themselves evidence-based or proven with a very low threshold of evidence. The Kentucky Youth Advocates organization, which has advocated for youth and alternatives to incarceration, specifically recommends Multisystemic Therapy and Functional Family Therapy as proven alternatives. These recommendations are consistent with the findings of Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, both of which conduct unbiased evaluations of treatment models.
With this bill, Kentucky is leading the way in the effort to better serve youthful offenders, their families and the community—and accomplishing this while spending less. According to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust, reforms enacted through Senate Bill 200 are expected to save Kentucky taxpayers as much as $24 million over five years while protecting public safety, holding juvenile offenders accountable for their actions, and improving outcomes for these youth and their families.
Hats off to the Bluegrass state.