The blog of the Urban Institute
November 23, 2020

Kentucky Is Succeeding in Keeping Youth Out of the Juvenile Justice System

November 20, 2020

Juvenile justice systems have come under increased scrutiny this year as states and localities confronted the direct connection between youth incarceration and the COVID-19 public health crisis. But we have long known that juvenile justice system involvement is harmful.

In September, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a new bench card for judges (PDF) explaining how court involvement negatively affects young people. It summarizes how justice system involvement can jeopardize education, employment, housing, and access to public benefits. Justice system involvement can also inflict additional trauma and stress, interfere with peer and family relationships, and disrupt educational continuity and progress. Research indicates that incarceration is an ineffective and costly strategy, but more evidence is proving how detrimental it is just to be in the system at all.

Surprisingly, data released by Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in April (PDF) suggest that states and localities are moving in the opposite direction. The proportion of cases formally processed by the court system actually increased over the past several years. But some states are moving in the right direction, and other states could learn from their experiences.

Kentucky is on the front lines of juvenile diversion efforts, and we took a deep dive to see whether their strategy is producing their desired outcomes.

Kentucky’s improved diversion process

In 2014, Kentucky passed Senate Bill 200, which fundamentally transformed the state’s approach to juvenile justice. Among other changes, it significantly expanded and enhanced the state’s existing precourt diversion process and the Court Designated Worker Program. S.B. 200 requires that all young people entering intake on a first-misdemeanor complaint be offered an opportunity to be diverted from the court system and expanded eligibility for the diversion program to third-misdemeanor and first-felony complaints. It also limited county attorneys’ ability to override diversion for first misdemeanors and required implementation of evidence-based practices in supervision for young people on diversion. Stakeholders expected S.B. 200 reforms to increase the number of youth diverted away from formal court involvement, increase the number of young people completing diversion, and decrease recidivism for diverted young people.

What happens when a state requires young people to have an opportunity to avoid court involvement altogether?

The Urban Institute studied the impact of Kentucky’s reforms on case decisionmaking and recidivism. Our findings showed three key takeaways:

  1. Many youth who do not need justice intervention are still referred to the justice system
    Although the number of complaints referred to intake decreased after reform, a significant proportion of young people coming through the front door entered on minor offenses. In fact, more than half of the complaints referred to intake in Kentucky in 2018 involved status offenses or first misdemeanors. Status offenses are ones that would not be illegal if committed by an adult, and first misdemeanors in Kentucky are most often theft, drug- or alcohol-related charges, or assault-related complaints. Research has documented a net benefit of diverting these cases away from the system entirely.
  2. Many young people entering on minor offenses can be safely diverted away from the system
    We found that young people entering intake on a first misdemeanor complaint after S.B. 200—who were mandatorily required to be offered diversion—were about twice as likely to be diverted, significantly less likely to be detained or referred to court, equally likely to complete diversion and avoid formal court involvement, and no more likely to return on a new complaint compared with a matched group before reform. Similar trends were observed for young people eligible for discretionary diversion (such as youth entering intake on a second or third misdemeanor or first-felony complaint). Simply stated, Kentucky significantly increased diversion for young people referred on less serious offenses and maintained high success rates with no change in their likelihood of returning to the system.
  3. Strengthening diversion at the front end could hold promise for reducing persistent racial and ethnic disparities
    Like many states, young people of color in Kentucky—particularly Black youth—are disproportionately represented at all stages of the justice process because of harsher treatment by police and courts over and above differences in offense patterns. Unfortunately, our research shows those inequalities persisted. Overall, Black youth were less likely to be diverted, more likely to be detained, and more likely to be referred to court than white youth both before and after reform. But we did observe some instances in which the gap narrowed after reform. Increases in diversion were steeper for Black youth than white youth. We also observed larger declines in formal court processing of Black youth referred to intake on a status complaint compared with white youth and steeper decreases in county attorney overrides of diversion for Black youth compared with white youth. To be clear, disparities persist and are significant. But many think that diversion reforms are key to improving equity (PDF), and our project lends some support to that assertion.

Research shows that young people thrive at home, in their communities, with the services and supports they need to achieve great things. For most, the best justice solution is to stay out of the system entirely. National statistics suggest we may be moving away from diversion at precisely the time we need to lean in. It would serve other states well to take a look at the Bluegrass State, which is showing them how.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.