Strong Winds in Kentucky and Ohio

The winds of change are blowing through the bluegrass region.

In mid-December Kentucky Juvenile Justice Department commissioner Bridget Skaggs Brown–who presided over a punishment-first network of prisons and brought a troublingly punitive, one-size-fits-all approach to sex offenders (see earlier posts here)–stepped down to chair the state’s Parole Board, to the delight of reform advocates.

Now it seems acting commissioner Ron Haws, who replaced her, is starting to make some necessary changes. “Kentucky’s juvenile justice system is undergoing a major shift in philosophy, dropping what critics said had been an emphasis on incarceration and punishment in favor of the treatment and rehabilitation required by law,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Sunday.

“I don’t want to hear the word incarceration used in conjunction with juveniles,” J. Michael Brown, the new secretary of justice and public safety, told the paper. “Our mission is to treat the juveniles, the children that are entrusted to our care.”

“We should not have a youth anywhere in the commonwealth in placement any longer than he needs to be there,” Haws added. “What I hope, at the end of my tour of duty, is that we get back to the treatment of youth.”

There are a lot of positive statements, seemingly more substantive than just rhetoric, coming out of Haws’s office, and the Courier-Journal article does a good job of summing them up:

Haws said he wants youths treated and supervised at home or close to home, when possible. If they need to be held in a residential center, he wants to get them out as soon as possible — except for the most serious offenders who generally are held until they turn 18 and are then re-sentenced as adults.

To help meet that objective, he has restored authority to local juvenile justice workers to make sentencing recommendations to judges. Previously, officials made recommendations from Frankfort, using a scoring system they devised.

Under Haws’ system, workers will be able to offer judges extra information, such as a child’s family history, emotional status and problems at home or school. Brown said she viewed the previous practice as “micromanaging” and ordered it stopped.

On undoing Brown’s policy on sex offenders:

Haws said he also is working to try to end ongoing legal battles between the juvenile justice department and state public defenders, who represent youths.

His department has dropped its appeal of a judge’s order that it stop housing youths who commit minor sex offenses, such as fondling, in long-term residential sex-offender programs. That places them alongside youths who commit more serious crimes, such as sodomy or rape.


Haws said his department is working with the public defenders in the Department of Public Advocacy to resolve a broader dispute over juvenile justice’s system of classifying and housing youths.

Public defenders had filed a lawsuit saying the system is too broad and doesn’t take into account individual circumstances of children, such as maturity, family support, emotional problems or learning disabilities.

Good news, right? But wait, there’s more. The Cincinnati Enquirer has chimed in with an editorial in today’s paper touting the “more flexible and personal approach to dealing with young offenders” that Kentucky is starting to adopt. The editorial also points out that neighboring Ohio is experiencing similar gusts of reform–westerly winds, that is, heading toward Missouri.

This was the diagnosis on Ohio’s JJ system last September. And here’s where the state is headed: “In Ohio,” the Enquirer notes, “some youths will move to small Cognitive-Behavioral Centers–intensive, short-term programs intended to keep low-risk offenders closer to home and out of large state facilities.” Why do these centers need to be so small, capable of housing only ten to twelve inmates? The paper explains:

Historically, public sentiment toward young offenders has shifted between a rehabilitative emphasis and a get-tough, zero tolerance approach. But through it all, certain truths of adolescence persisted. Teenagers do poorly in large and anonymous settings. They do best with a consistent group of adults who form close-knit relationships with them. They need help transitioning back into their families and communities. And permanent rehabilitation requires treatment and support rather than isolation and punishment.

The trick is having that philosophy articulated at the top of the juvenile justice system. “If you have a deterrence and get-tough model, then that’s what the staff at youth facilities will do,” said Edward J. Latessa, professor and head of UC’s Division of Criminal Justice. “If you have a human services model, that’s the kind of staff you’ll attract.”

Treating young offenders as individuals and emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment isn’t getting soft on crime. It’s getting smart on kids. In the long run, it’s the best hope of keeping them out of a revolving door of re-offending.

Bluegrass music to my ears. Blow, winds, blow…


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