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With end of session in sight, Ky. juvenile justice bill nears passage

The hall in Kentucky's capitol building
Alix Mattingly
The hall in Kentucky's capitol building

Kids charged with certain crimes would automatically be detained for up to 48 hours under a bill that is poised to pass the Kentucky Legislature.

The provision applies to minors charged with violent felony offenses, as outlined under the state’s criminal code. Violent offenses range from murder and manslaughter to robbery, assault and escape.

Jefferson District Court Judge Jessica Moore, who presides over juvenile court cases, said judges were concerned about mandatory detention.

“Once a youth is detained, there is a ripple effect of negative consequences. And we have to be so careful when making that decision. It cannot be a one size fits all for every youth across the commonwealth,” Moore said.

The mandatory detention policy is part of a sweeping bill that attempts to reform the state’s troubled juvenile justice system. The measure would also set aside funding to reopen Louisville’s juvenile detention facility, boost staffing across the state and unseal criminal records of youth convicted of some violent crimes.

The proposal comes amid high-profile problems in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, which has endured a series of assaults, escapes, riots and allegations of inappropriate force in recent years.

Though other bills attempting to reform the juvenile justice system have been proposed this year, Senate budget committee chair Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Ryland Heights, said the new version of House Bill 3 amounted to an “agreement between the two chambers.”

Scott West, deputy public advocate for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, said requiring more kids to stay behind bars for any period of time means more public defenders will be needed.

“That child will have the right to counsel immediately. If we’re there, we’re going to try to do everything we can do to protect the liberty interests of that child, including shutting down talk,” West said.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton and supporter of the bill, said the mandatory detention policy would be a meaningful opportunity to intervene in kids’ lives.

“This is just related to violent offenses. And it’s not simple detention, there’s a mental health assessment that goes along with this, in addition to possible treatment,” Carroll said.

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville, voted in favor of the bill, but advised lawmakers that more will need to be done.

“There are big forces and dynamics in place that are impacting this,” Neal said. “If we just think this is going to be a stopgap and this is going to end it, then this is going to miss the boat.”

The bill already passed out of the Senate Committee on Appropriations and Revenue on Monday. It can now be considered by the full Senate.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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