A defendant is brought to court to appear before Judge David Hilton, II, in Juvenile Court, By Michael Clevenger, C-J

As a seasoned criminal justice practitioner, I cannot ignore the reality that many of the negative influences conducive to juvenile criminal behavior often originate within the very homes and neighborhoods to which youth are returned under alternatives to detention programs. In providing oversight to home-based detention alternatives, the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council must ensure the homes provide a “Safe Space” for youth.

I recently attended a JJOC meeting which provided a snapshot of the complexity and concern involved in Kentucky’s fight to redirect youth offenders from a life behind bars. I witnessed an inspiring assembly of Kentucky’s leadership—Executives, Legislators, Professionals and Advocates—all collaborating to address the complex challenges. Ms. Margo Figg, the Director of the Division of Classification and Placement at the Department of Juvenile Justice, discussed alternatives to detention and highlighted the remarkable work of her Detention Alternative Coordinators and their practice of housing alleged juvenile offenders in their own homes.

While I respect the autonomy of each household in the commonwealth to uphold its values and moral code, I urge the JJOC to prioritize essential components of successful home-based ATD placements.

A lot of attention and approximately $460,000 Kentucky tax dollars for a new audit are being spent on Kentucky’s pre-adjudication juvenile detention centers, commissioned by our state auditor’s office. Recent allegations of assaults, escapes, riots and mistreatment of youths held inside the detention centers deserve this scrutiny and a thorough investigation. While the report will be presented by CGL Companies LLC of Lexington, a consulting firm for criminal-justice facilities, to legislators in early 2024, a discerning eye should also examine the suitability of alternatives to detention alternatives- specifically, those that are home-based.

Safety is priority: Gov. Beshear must step up and help children in juvenile detention facilities

We can all agree that troubled teenagers deserve the same security, if not more, provided to any citizen serving time behind bars. Add substance abuse or mental health issues to a developing mind, and finding affordable resources to help our children overcome their struggles can be overwhelming for both their families and the government entities tasked with holding them criminally accountable while providing a pathway to redemption.

In 1996, House Bill 117 created  the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice to address the high numbers of at-risk youth,  delinquent behaviors and alternative programming to keep children out of prison. In turn, Kentucky’s General Assembly established the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council to independently evaluate the DJJ’s work, facilitate legislative reforms, and secure funding for the commonwealth’s juvenile justice system.

Every home considered for home-based ATD placement must undergo a comprehensive assessment to consider the physical conditions and the well-being of all the occupants. All DAC’s should also provide training and development programs validated by trained professionals and tailored to the unique needs of each household. This individual approach requires funding allocations that are flexible and customized for each household.

Home-based ATD solutions became the predominant program choice after COVID-19 shuttered many privately run alternatives which often cost almost three times as much as their home-based counterparts. Unfortunately, the systemic factors often driving criminal activity, have their roots in some of those homes and neighborhoods.

By transforming home-based solutions through comprehensive assessment, tailored training and flexible funding, we can significantly improve the home environment while also reducing the risk of recidivism and offering a more cost-effective and positive outcome for Kentucky’s youth.

We have a golden opportunity to fortify our approach and create a safer, more nurturing environment for our youth—one that truly aligns with the overarching mission of the DJJ and the values of the commonwealth. It is our collective responsibility to seize this opportunity and invest in a brighter future for Kentucky’s young citizens.