A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

New study shows Kentucky’s juvenile justice reform getting results a decade after becoming law

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

A new report showed a decade after being passed, Kentucky’s juvenile justice reform law is getting results.

It found 60% of juvenile cases were diverted to alternative programs in 2020, compared to 41% in 2013. Instead of being sent to in detention centers, kids in diversion programs participate in home supervision, group homes, foster care, community programs and wraparound services.

Across the country, states and counties are advancing reforms to expand and improve youth diversion programs, according to a report from The Sentencing Project. (Photo courtesy The Sentencing Project)

Richard Mendel, senior youth justice research fellow for The Sentencing Project, said the state has also made strides in reducing racial disparities among kids whose cases are diverted. He pointed out statewide coordinators work across counties to help youth and their families navigate the system and find alternatives to detention.

“Kentucky looked at this, the state, and they very quickly changed their process for notifying people,” Mendel explained. “Instead of sending a form letter, they started calling and engaging the families, and explaining why it’s better to keep your kid out of court.”

According to the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, in 2022, 982 youths were placed in an alternative program. In the first half of last year, 726 were placed. A spokesperson for the Cabinet said the number is expected to continue to increase, year-over-year.

Mendel added the goals of alternative programs are to ensure the public remains safe and the young person is set on a positive life path to reduce the odds of reoffending in childhood or as an adult.

“Diversion tends to be cheaper,” Mendel emphasized. “It’s not a net cost, it’s a net savings, even in the short term. And it’s especially a net savings financially in the long term, because these young people are much less likely to come back.”

Last year, Gov. Andy Beshear signed Senate Bill 162, which provides more than $25 million in funding for Department of Juvenile Justice staff salaries, transportation costs and expanded programming and diversion resources, such as residential psychiatric treatment for youth with severe mental health issues.

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