Guest Commentary: Would Locking Up An Extra 400 Kids Make Kentucky Safer?

Lawmakers should find out before letting mandatory 48-hour detention begin.

click to enlarge "The new mandatory detention law seems certain to produce worse results at a higher cost to taxpayers." - Photo: Kindel Media, Pexels
"The new mandatory detention law seems certain to produce worse results at a higher cost to taxpayers."
In a surprising move, Kentucky’s legislature earlier this year mandated up to 48 hours of detention for juveniles accused of certain serious crimes.

Surprising because the decision flies in the face of decades of research. It also conflicts with efforts by many states, including Kentucky, to steer juveniles away from detention into community-based programs that, according to all that research, produce better outcomes.

The change will further strain a juvenile detention system that had spiraled into crisis. The escalating violence, neglect and understaffing became impossible to ignore in light of reporting by John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader and Sharon Burton of the Adair County Community Voice.

Senate action delayed the effective date of the 48-hour mandatory hold until July 2024, presumably to prepare for the influx of youth.

The delay, thankfully, also gives lawmakers time to revisit the decision.

Kentucky data suggests that juveniles entering detention at intake will increase by a third once the change takes effect.

The new law robs current decision-makers — law enforcement officers, court designated workers and judges — of any discretion in the hours after a juvenile has been accused of any of 15 violent felony offenses. This is the period prior to a judge holding a detention hearing and long before any determination of guilt.
Last year, 415 juveniles were released at this point in the process while 1,162 entered detention, according to data compiled by the Administrative Office of the Courts and recently presented to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council.

In other words, if the new law had been in effect in 2022, an additional 415 juveniles would have entered detention immediately after arrest and before their first hearing — a 35% increase.

In other words, if the new law had been in effect in 2022, an additional 415 juveniles would have entered detention immediately after arrest and before their first hearing — a 35% increase.

In addition to juveniles awaiting their first hearing, the eight juvenile detention centers also hold youth who have been found guilty of serious offenses.

The eight secure detention centers held 213 youth on May 23. (Kentucky operates 21 other less secure juvenile facilities — group homes, youth development centers and day treatment centers.)

Most Democrats voted against House Bill 3, the vehicle for the 48-hour mandatory hold.

Republicans’ rationale for ditching the current process has never been entirely clear to me, except perhaps a belief by some, most prominently HB 3 sponsor Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, that a stint in detention would scare some kids straight.

What science tells us, though, is that a traumatic experience, such as being locked up far from home with truly violent people, doesn’t straighten out kids, it messes them up. Trauma inflicts lasting harm, physical and psychological, and is a predictor of adult criminality.

HB 3 also mandates a mental health assessment for kids who are detained at intake, which sounds good but presents practical challenges and, some fear, could prolong detention while kids await assessment.

Bratcher, for one, is not up for revisiting the pros and cons of mandatory detention. He made that clear at the May 26 meeting of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council.
“I’m so sick of talking about that. Violent people belong incarcerated — if that’s the right word for juveniles — until somebody with authority like a judge decides what to do. That’s my opinion and I’ve had all the political talks I want to to talk about it.”

Granted, the crimes for which HB 3 makes detention automatic sound scary — until you consider the mitigating factors that now enter into decisions about whether to release or detain. For example, was a kid the youngest and least culpable (couldn’t see over the steering wheel) in a group of juveniles who stole a car? A teen who commits “arson” by setting a trash can on fire as a prank should be held accountable, but two nights in detention would be over the top.

As the data shows, most juveniles accused of violent offenses already are sent to secure detention under a process that’s been working for years.

So, let’s ask: Did the same Kentucky decision-makers who sent 1,162 newly-accused juveniles to detention last year make a mistake by allowing 415 juveniles to remain in their communities while any charges against them were decided?

The answer is knowable. Lawmakers should compare the impacts on public safety and on kids, as well as the costs, for juveniles who were released at intake versus those who were detained.

Then the legislature could make an informed decision about whether to reverse the mandatory 48-hour hold.

Lawmakers also recently learned that understaffing in juvenile detention centers has not been solved by an increase in starting pay to $50,000 a year, though new hires are coming on board.

Since Jan. 1, detention staff has increased from 313 filled positions to 349 filled positions as of May 10, Justice and Public Safety Secretary Kerry Harvey told the oversight council on May 26.

That left juvenile detention centers with 73 vacant staffing positions, according to a May 31 email from a spokesperson for the justice cabinet.

Both sides of the political aisle united around an array of juvenile justice remedies in this year’s legislative session and backed them with tens of millions of dollars for salaries and construction.

I don’t know how much it would cost to detain 415 more juveniles over the course of a year, but it wouldn’t be cheap. The state would get better outcomes by putting any additional money into community-based programs rather than detention.

In 2014, the legislature enacted juvenile justice reforms aimed at diverting juveniles from the court system into programs that hold kids accountable and provide supports in their communities. Subsequent studies have shown that recidivism (the rate of subsequent complaints) has declined or remained the same as more juveniles have been diverted.

The new mandatory detention law seems certain to produce worse results at a higher cost to taxpayers.

Let’s reconsider.

This commentary was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern and republished here with permission.

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