By Anne Teigen
New data shows a big impact on Kentucky’s juvenile justice system arising from the state’s passage of comprehensive juvenile justice reform legislation in 2014.
SB 200 made numerous changes to Kentucky’s juvenile code, including restricting commitment of certain low-level juvenile offenders, putting limits on how long offenders can be placed out-of-home and instituting data collection requirements.
Notably, the law also expanded and enhanced the pre-court diversion process, administered by the courts, for low-level delinquent and status offenders.
The law required courts and county attorneys to offer diversion to young people charged with low-level offenses if they have little or no history of offenses and prevents prosecutors from overriding such decisions. The law also made diversion a possibility for young people who were referred for some first-time felonies.
During diversion, court-designated workers now use evidence-based assessment and supervision practices. In addition, Family Accountability, Intervention and Response (FAIR) teams were established in every judicial district to provide enhanced case management for youth with behavioral health or unmet service needs.
The goal of these reforms was to improve outcomes for youth and families, reduce recidivism and control youth corrections costs by keeping lower-level delinquent youth out of costly detention, and instead provide evidence-based, home-based counseling and supervision in the community.
A new report from The Urban Institute examined how Kentucky’s 2014 diversion reforms have changed the landscape of juvenile diversion in the state. Researchers looked at data both before and after reform to see whether or not more youth were being diverted (as intended), if those youth were successful in diversion and if the youth returned to the system on a later charge.
They found the law had worked as intended, increasing diversion without increasing recidivism. Among the findings were:
- In 2018, 58% of complaints that weren’t dismissed entered into diversion agreements, up from 45% percent in 2014.
- The data showed diversion rates increased for all youth. Significant disparities persisted between white and Black youth, but the gaps narrowed in some areas.
- Diversion was used much more regularly for youth referred on school-related complaints after the reforms were passed. In 2014, about half of school-related complaints went on to formal court processing (not diversion.) In 2018, only about a quarter of school-related complaints went on to formal court processing, a substantial increase in diversion.
- Between 2014 and 2018, the proportion of youth with truancy cases who entered into diversion agreements rose from 60 to 85%.
- Nearly 90% of the youths completed diversion and avoided further court involvement, and for young people referred on a first-time misdemeanor complaint in 2018, the success rate was 94%.
Overall, findings indicate that after the passage of SB 200 in 2014, Kentucky significantly increased the proportion of youth diverted from formal court involvement and maintained high success rates with no substantive impact on recidivism.
Anne Teigen is a program director in NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.