Throwing the book at non-violent youth offenders hurts more than it helps, officials and advocates say

11/29/2012 05:16 PM

Advocates and some state officials are increasingly pushing to stop the practice of sentencing teens to time in a detention center for committing a status offense — such as underage drinking or smoking or habitually skipping school or running away.

They are crimes only because the teens committing them are under 18.

In Kentucky, local judges resort to sentencing teens to time in juvenile detention centers unevenly. Judges in two counties — Kenton and Fayette — ordered more than 74 young adults to serve time in juvenile facilities in 2011. In 16 counties last year, no teens landed in detention centers.

Advocates are now arguing against the practice on several fronts. First, they have cited studies, such as the National Juvenile Justice Network’s report, that show how the practice doesn’t curb the underlying behaviors and may lead to at-risk youths being negatively affected by more violent offenders with whom they’re locked up.

Senior reporter Don Weber spoke with teen who spent time in a detention center after running away from her foster home. She and child advocates said her story isn’t unique — which only underscores the need for changing the system.

Critics of detaining status offenders also are making fiscal arguments against it.

In the short term, a county would spend $94 each day to house a juvenile in a detention center — $1.50 more than what it costs to place the youth in emergency shelter care and about $15 more than placing the juvenile in supervised foster care, according data compiled by Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Last month, Kentucky Youth Advocates brought to Louisville Jeanette Moll, a juvenile justice policy analyst for the fiscally conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Moll has written about the long- and short-term costs to taxpayers of sentencing teens who commit status offenses into detention centers. She spoke with Pure Politics before presenting her findings at an Oct. 8 Kentucky Youth Advocates conference.

About Ryan Alessi

Ryan Alessi joined cn|2 in May 2010 as senior managing editor and host of Pure Politics. He is now pursuing an advanced degree in non-fiction writing from Murray State University and is a regular contributor to Pure Politics. Ryan has covered politics for more than 14 years, including seven years as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ryan can be reached at purepolitics@twcable.com or @mycn2 on Twitter.

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