I am writing in response to the story “WDRB Investigation: New KY law contributes to rise in Louisville juvenile crime,” done by Mr. Gil Corsey. I was the sponsor of Senate Bill 200, a major 2014 juvenile justice reform law aimed at holding youth accountable, while getting youth and their families the services and programming they need to get back on track. I serve as chair of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council monitoring its implementation. Since passage, we’ve meticulously reviewed data from across the juvenile justice system, which show better outcomes for youth and families statewide.
I took issue with a number of the points Mr. Corsey made in this story. In Jefferson County, 42% of youth who were put on diversion in CY 2016 had committed a status offense. Status offenses are behaviors that many kids need to be steered away from at one point in their youth, like truancy or tobacco possession, but they are not considered crimes for adults. The increase in diversion cases in Jefferson County is driven primarily by these status offense cases, not crimes.
This is exactly what we want to see. Research is clear that for low-level youth, such as those committing status offenses, pulling them deeper into the system can actually produce the opposite of the desired outcome. The youth’s behavior often gets worse, not better. Instead of fixing the problem, the government ends up pulling the youth away from their family and isolating them more.
I also want to point out a problem with how Mr. Corsey categorized “serious violent offenses” in his recidivism definition. In that definition he included four different types of assault in the 4th degree, a misdemeanor crime that results in either no visible injury or only minor injury. These crimes are not included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting category of violent offenses, and as a former prosecutor I personally do not believe they should be considered “serious, violent offenses” in the same category as crimes like robbery, rape and murder.
This recidivism definition is important to clarify because more than one-third of diverted youth who Mr. Corsey categorized as serious, violent re-offenders were charged with some form of assault in the 4th degree as their subsequent offense. If you exclude those youth from his recidivism definition, less than 4% of youth who were diverted in CY 2016 have subsequently committed a serious, violent offense. This is an extremely low recidivism rate.
I believe these data are important to clarify because examining data related to Senate Bill 200 implementation is a core component of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council’s responsibility. We have defined performance measures to routinely track the implementation of the legislation, and we regularly receive data reports from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and other relevant agencies charged with policy implementation.
In examining statewide data, we have seen many positive results from Senate Bill 200 implementation. Statewide, public offense complaints (offenses that would be considered crimes if committed by an adult) have continued to decline in the years following the reforms. While we have seen an increase in diversions, we have also seen that more than 90% of youth successfully complete diversion and are kept out of the court system, and the vast majority of youth who successfully complete diversion do not reoffend. When youth are successful in diversion, it frees up time for the juvenile court to handle more serious cases and for judges to use their resources on the cases that truly pose a risk to public safety.
Finally, I want to make a critical point about Senate Bill 200: this legislation did not change any statute related to how the most serious crimes can be handled in juvenile court, or impact any juveniles who commit such serious offenses that they end up being sent to criminal court. Senate Bill 200 was designed to curb unnecessary, ineffective and costly detention for the lowest level offenders, and provide more effective community-based programs to address problem behavior. This allows the state to prioritize scarce resources in court and in the Department of Juvenile Justice to better address the needs of youth who commit serious offenses and have significant prior history. This can improve public safety and improve outcomes for youth, which should be the ultimate purpose of Kentucky’s juvenile justice system.