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In Latest Reform, Kentucky Softens Approach to Juvenile Offenders

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Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) today plans to sign into law a package of reforms to the state’s juvenile justice program on Friday, the latest step in Kentucky’s effort to overhaul its criminal justice system.

What to Watch: In Prison State, airing online and on air starting April 29, FRONTLINE follows Kentucky’s attempts to reform its criminal justice program through those it impacts most.

The state is one of several nationwide that has begun to look at new approaches to criminal justice, after decades of spending millions on incarceration. While the motive is largely financial, the impact has begun to be felt, particularly in African-American communities, who are disproportionately represented among 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails nationwide.

Kentucky has an incarceration problem. Although crime rates have remained low, the state prison population has far outpaced the national average, rising 45 percent in the decade ending in 2009, compared to 13 percent nationwide. Kentucky’s juvenile detention has followed a similar trend even as youth crime has declined.

Jailed for Skipping School

In Kentucky, youths can go to juvenile detention for truancy — skipping school.* The state spends more than $87,000 per bed each year to keep them and other juvenile offenders locked up, totaling half the juvenile justice department’s $102 million annual budget. Studies have found that incarcerating young people isn’t usually effective: One 2009 University of Chicago study found removing kids from their homes doesn’t make them less likely to reoffend — and may make some worse.

The new law empowers school officials and court workers to intervene with young people before they reach the courts by first assessing their needs and linking them to relevant social services. Officials say the change is a paradigm shift in how to think about youths in the system.

“[Truancy] is more often than not a symptom of the bigger problem,” said Whitney Westerfield, a Republican state senator who helped spearhead the bill. “If they’re missing school or they’re a habitual runaway, what are they running from? Is it physical abuse, substance abuse, behavioral, mental health issues?”

The reforms were driven by a task force of officials invested in changing how the state deals with young people, including Hasan Davis, the commissioner for Kentucky’s juvenile justice department.

Davis has a personal history with the system. He was arrested for the first time at age 11. He was on and off food stamps for years, and lived in 12 different childhood homes. In an interview, Davis told FRONTLINE that as a child, he’d been told by a teacher that he wouldn’t be pressured to work hard at school because he needed to focus on his troubled home life. He was finally expelled from high school.

“When you get that kind of subtle or not so subtle messaging about where you’re supposed to be and the lane you’re supposed to be in, it’s hard to get out of that,” he said. “And so you graduate from expulsions to criminal behavior and then to probation and then to commitment — and then you graduate into the adult system.”

Davis managed to earn his GED and rebuild his life. Other members of his family ended up in prison.

The Most Likely Response

There’s a disparity nationwide in the way that low-income and minority people, including children, tend to be treated by the system, Michelle Alexander, an attorney and civil-rights advocate, told FRONTLINE. “If you’re a schoolteacher working in a suburban school, and you come to discover that a child in your school may be struggling with drugs or have a drug abuse problem, the most likely response is not to call the police,” she said. “The most likely response is to get them help.”

For the rest, she said: “We say: ‘Oh, the answer for you is a cage. We’re going to put you in a cage — lock you in a literal cage.’”

The disparity starts early. Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 42 percent of the preschool children suspended once, and 48 percent of the preschool children suspended more than once, according to a recent study by the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The difference narrows, but remains marked through to high school.

Other Kentucky Reforms

In Kentucky, the new law comes on the heels of legislation passed in 2011 aimed at reducing the adult prison population and cutting recidivism rates.

One part of the adult law allows nonviolent offenders to be released early to what’s called mandatory release supervision, or MRS, a program that conducts a similar risk assessment to help connect them with drug treatment, mental-health care and other resources they might need. Together, the reforms are projected to save the state an estimated $422 million over the next 10 years.

So far the MRS program has had mixed results. Within a year, those released to MRS had committed fewer crimes and fewer parole violations than those not in the program. But they were more likely to return to prison for technical violations, according to preliminary data collected by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has partnered with Kentucky in creating the reforms.

As elsewhere in the country, those convicted of crimes in Kentucky still face major difficulties re-entering society. They emerge from prison with the clothes they’re wearing and a bus ticket. It’s extremely difficult for felons to find work, particularly in a tight job market when employers aren’t willing to take a chance on someone with a criminal record. Felons in Kentucky are also banned from jobs that require a license, which include athletic trainers, barbers, bus and trick drivers and manicurists. Housing options are limited, even if they can afford it. They’re even banned from voting for life without an executive pardon from the governor — all issues this legislation didn’t address.

But some state officials say they hope these recent moves will be the start of even broader change. Rep. John Tilley, a Democratic** state representative who co-sponsored the adult reforms, refers to felony convictions as an “economic death sentence” that often forces inmates to turn to crime to support themselves. If the new reforms work, Tilley said there might be appetite for addressing these other issues. And Westerfield hopes to move forward on additional reforms to the juvenile system soon.

This coming Tuesday, FRONTLINE explores Kentucky’s efforts at reform in Prison State. The film follows the paths of four people caught up in Kentucky’s criminal justice system.

Watch the preview above, and the full film on air or online starting Tuesday, April 29 at 10 p.m. EST on most PBS stations. (Check local listings.)

*Correction: This story contained an incorrect statistic on the juveniles in Kentucky arrested for truancy. As of 2012, 13 percent of the detained juvenile population were status cases — offenses that aren’t considered a crime for adults. Of those cases, 80 percent are truancy cases.

**The story also stated that Rep. Tilley is a Republican. He is a Democrat.

Christel, 15, appears in juvenile court in Kentucky in handcuffs. (FRONTLINE)
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