Keeping kids out of court: KYA advocates for age appropriate responses to youth behavior

02/15/2017 03:44 PM

Extremely young children can end up locked up in secure detention facilities in Kentucky, but legislation filed before the General Assembly is seeking to set a minimum age of criminal responsibility in an effort to keeps kids out of the justice system.

Advocates pushing for reforms in the General Assembly describe Kentucky’s juvenile justice system as a maze in which children as young as 4, 5, and even 6-years-old can become entrapped.

Tara Grieshop-Goodwin, the chief policy officer for Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA), applauded the work on reforms to the juvenile justice system first passed in 2014 under Senate Bill 200, but she stressed additional reforms are needed to keep children and communities moving in the right direction.

“Really with the juvenile justice system what we want to do is have the most effective response with the young people who get into trouble so that we can help them get back on track,” Grieshop-Goodwin said. “We don’t want them to keep showing up in juvenile justice system and we don’t want to see them in the criminal justice system later.

“If we could make sure we’re using our resources wisely, not over criminalizing behavior, but making sure we’re really addressing it and getting to the core issue — we’re going to have the greatest impact, and that’s going to have an impact on public safety.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, has filed Senate Bill 20, which aims to address both disproportionate minority contact in the youth justice system and setting a minimum age of criminal responsibility.

In the last couple of years KYA has found that kids as young as 4, 5 and 6 years old have had charges filed against them in Kentucky courts.

“When we’re talking about 4, 5 and 6-year-olds we’re talking about little kids who are learning to read and write still,” Grieshop-Goodwin said. “For that age group their favorite book is Green Eggs and Ham. Young children are very different than older children.

“We see that play out in many other arenas,” she continued. “We see it in sports — we don’t have little league baseball players going up against high school pitchers. We don’t expect young children to learn calculus concepts.”

What the legislation intends to do if youth below 12 years old find themselves in trouble, they will instead redirect with court designated workers and send the case before a FAIR team (Family, Accountability, Intervention and Response) set up under the 2014 legislation. The FAIR team is designed to look at the issues from a variety of angles to determine what is happening with the child and the family.

Because of developmental immaturity of youth, Grieshop-Goodwin said it makes sense in the legislation to set a minimum age for criminal responsibility of 12 years old and older.

“For 11 and younger we would have this alternative response that would bring the family into that response to the child’s behavior.”

Senate Bill 20 also calls on the Department of Juvenile Justice, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department for Community Based Services and the Department of Education to compile data, in part to determine where disproportionate minority contact problems arise, and ask those agencies to develop and implement a plan to correct the issues.


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