Kudos to Gail Robinson and her team of public advocates in Kentucky, who have scored a victory in their fight to reform the state’s Juvenile Justice Department. Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd has found that the juvenile sex offenders program is operating counter to its mission, and ruled yesterday that it must revamp the system for classifying, housing and treating the wards in its care. Even though the case was brought on behalf of Robinson’s clients, five mentally retarded boys, Shepherd’s decision may apply to all youth in the program.
The program, Shepherd found, directs all young sex offenders into long-term treatment centers, often far from home, regardless of the severity of their offense or their mental capacity to gain from the centers’ rehabilitative services. The designation of “sex offender”–which, now that public registries are readily available online, can carry a lifelong stigma (see Maggie Jones’s smart cover story on this subject in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine)–is supposed to be reserved for older children who commit serious offenses such as rape or sodomy. And Kentucky law explicitly exempts mentally retarded youth from this category. But thanks to Robinson’s efforts, Shepherd learned that even those children with IQs as low as 40 and those whose offenses are as slight as inappropriate fondling (a misdemeanor) are being branded, so to speak, for life. And to his credit, Shepherd put an immediate stop to this one-size-fits-all approach.
This ruling follows a similar one two years ago, in which the state’s juvenile justice department, restructured in the mid-’90s after widespread abuses prompted a federal consent decree, was found to be sending too many youths too far from home. And it bodes well for another case, also brought by Robinson and pending before Shepherd, claiming that Juvenile Justice Department officials are still ignoring classification procedures and stuffing their centers with juveniles whose minor offenses should keep them closer to home, in nonrestrictive settings like group homes. Here’s hoping Shepherd holds the state similarly accountable when that case crosses his desk.