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Kentucky Panel's Proposals Could Take Truancy Offenses Out of Courts

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A Kentucky task force has recommended reducing the state's youth incarceration rate in part by developing a new system that relies on community programs and parental involvement for dealing with offenses like truancy.

The Bluegrass State is one of many that have considered proposals to reduce youth incarceration rates, such as increased funding of crime prevention efforts, new youth mentoring programs, and a narrowing of "zero tolerance" policies in schools. Georgia acted on recommendations from its own task force in May.

Many state efforts focus largely on "status offenses" like running away from home and skipping school, which are non-criminal and only prohibited because of the age of the offender.

If Kentucky lawmakers act on the report from the 2013 Task Force on the Unified Juvenile Code, released last week, such changes could take discussions of many offenses out of the courtroom, particularly for youth offenders with limited criminal histories, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

"Youth convicted of misdemeanors and violators of court orders make up the majority -- ranging from 55 percent to 87 percent -- of those in the state's out-of-home placements, the report said ...

The length of time violators of court orders and misdemeanor offenders spend in out-of-home incarceration has increased 31 percent and 21 percent, respectively, over the past decade, the report said. Lower-level offenders constitute a majority and growing share of youth in Kentucky's secure youth development center facilities: from 2002 to 2012, they increased as a share of the secure population from 39 percent to 55 percent. Offenders could also be placed far from their homes, creating obstacles for involving families.

Many of the youth had limited criminal histories, or none at all, before their most restrictive out-of-home placement with the Department of Juvenile Justice, according to the report. Hundreds of status offenders are spending time out of their homes in foster care or in detention, and inconsistent decisions are made across the state, the report said."

The sticking point for some state legislatures asked to approved juvenile justice changes has been increased costs on the front end for some programs. But those costs are far outweighed by the eventual savings that come from reducing incarceration rates, supporters of such changes have said.

Kentucky task force members said incarcerating a minor costs more than incarcerating an adult.

State-level changes to juvenile justice efforts could be particularly noticeable in schools because truancy cases typically make up a large portion of overall status offenses, according to a recent report by the VERA Institute of Justice.

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