Some members of the General Assembly want to make changes in Kentucky’s Unified Juvenile Code, but there are concerns among those who deal daily with those juveniles that unintended consequences of such changes must be avoided.
Kentucky is one of only about 13 states that hide juvenile court proceedings from public view. The idea is to protect young people who can be stigmatized for life. But Kentucky also incarcerates more “status offenders” than any other state.
(Status offenses are those which, if committed by an adult, would not be considered a crime or violation, such things as school truancy or being beyond the control of parents.)
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, has previously filed legislation to prohibit “secure detention” for status offenders but the legislation failed to pass both chambers of the General Assembly. Instead, a task force was appointed to consider changes to the juvenile code.
Barren County Superintendent Bo Matthews, who previously served the district as Director of Pupil Personnel for six years, on Wednesday told the task force it should consider making it easier for school officials to work with the Department of Community Based Services to address truancy and control problems early rather than only as a last resort.
“Sometimes we don’t know if a (student’s) case will meet their criteria for intervention,” Matthews said. “But when the court orders the cabinet to get involved, we see some success.”
But school officials sometimes feel hamstrung because the department won’t step in until all other remedies have been exhausted.
“The schools have to exhaust all of their remedies to truancy before it becomes an issue for involvement by DCBS,” said Denise Perry, Director of Pupil Personnel for Henry County Schools. “We’re asking: can we get them involved before that?”
Matthews and Perry told the task force truancy problems often mask other problems at home and that school officials often have trouble getting parents to help, either because they’ve given up trying to control the child’s behavior or don’t think it’s a serious problem. DCBS can address some of those larger problems.
Perry told the task force that, “I’m a veteran. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve worked with kids of parents and even grandparents I worked with before. I understand — there is a generational aspect to truancy.”
One alternative Barren County developed is the Barren Academy for Expanded and Virtual Learning — virtual classes online. As Matthews told the task force, when a student is about to drop out, it’s a last chance to offer that student. But it has also evolved into more.
Neighboring districts have begun using it to prevent their own students from dropping out. And districts across the state, some of which may too small to employ a physics teacher for only five or six students who wish to take the course, also have signed those students up for the virtual high school classes.
But such strategies as alternative education don’t eliminate the need for court action for some students, Matthews said. He urged the task force not to take away a family court judge’s discretion to threaten truants or their parents with incarceration as a last resort.
So did Chief Assistant Campbell County Attorney Cameron Blau. He said no one wants to put a child in jail but there are times when it is necessary. He told of one young man who became a good student after truancy problems. When Blau asked him why, the student said he feared having to go to jail.
The task force also heard from Mike O’Connell, Jefferson County attorney, who wants the legislature to open juvenile courts — at least on a restricted basis — to public view.
There has been a growing chorus of groups from newspapers and media to child advocates who say opening the courts protect the public interest and sometimes the interests of the child.
He told the task force that more young perpetrators are committing violent crimes and opening court proceedings for such offenders protects the public. He said 15 states presume juvenile cases will be open but allow judges to close them when it’s in the interest of the child or public. Another 20 have open courts with some restrictions. Only three have no restriction on opening juvenile proceedings.
Kentucky is one of the 13 with closed courts although in some states the judge can open them to the public.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.
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