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Kentucky's Turnaround On Prosecuting Minors For 'Status Offenses' Like Truancy


There are some states where skipping school can get a kid locked in jail. Some kids can also face juvenile detention if they run away from home. The states that have such laws call them status offenses. In other words, these are acts that are only considered crimes because of the offender's status as a minor. One of the states that enforces such offenses is Kentucky, which is now working to change its approach. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: When it comes to juvenile misbehavior, the status offense that tops the list is truancy, kids consistently not going to school.

KELLY SHOUSE: I missed - I think it was, like, 98 days.

CORLEY: That's Kelly Shouse (ph). Twenty-two years old now, she has a ready smile and deep dimples and lives at the Brighton Recovery Center for Women in northern Kentucky. Formerly addicted to heroin, she served several stints in jail on a possession charge. When she was in eighth grade, she ran with her older sister's crowd and rarely attended school.

SHOUSE: You know, they send your parents letters and stuff, you know. Your parents would usually get in trouble. They don't go to court. But I basically did not listen to my parents, what they said.

CORLEY: Still habitually truant in high school, her mother signed off on her dropping out. Shouse says she was thankful a judge ordered her to complete community service instead of jailing her.

SHOUSE: I mean, I've had friends, like, when I was in school, get - went to juvenile hall. And they come back worse, some of them.

CORLEY: That's a dilemma that Kentucky officials are trying to change by dealing with issues behind the troublesome behavior of young people. Besides truancy, there are four other common status offenses - breaking curfew, underage drinking, being incorrigible or ungovernable and running away. Status events complaints against juveniles reached their peak in the early 2000s and have been on the decline. But Kentucky still detains juveniles who refuse to follow a judge's order more than any other state except Washington, which is now phasing it out.

The Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Lexington, Ky., is just down the road from the horse stables at a nearby adult prison. On this day, six of the 40 detainees are females. One is serving 30 days for habitual truancy and contempt of court. Superintendent Alichia Stanley leads the way down the yellow cinder-block hallways.

ALICHIA STANLEY: We had a new kid come in just a little while ago, and I heard someone getting ready to be released.

CORLEY: About half the states in the country don't detain kids for status offenses. Others and the District of Columbia do under what's called a valid court order exception. That means if a kid doesn't follow what a judge tells her to do, she can be detained. Quite often, the cases are dismissed. In 2014, Kentucky passed a law overhauling its juvenile justice system. That year, it jailed nearly 800 status offenders. Kentucky state Senator Whitney Westerfield, a chief sponsor of the legislation, says now the state offers services first to troubled youth to get to the underlying issues.

WHITNEY WESTERFIELD: Then we have diverted youth away from the system as much as possible to various resources depending on where you are and depending on each child's situation. But we've done our best to try to keep the kid from ever coming in the door.

CORLEY: Two years ago, the number of status offenders detained in Kentucky had dropped to less than 400, about half of them girls. Those detained most often are runaways. Nationally, that's the only status offense with a higher percentage of girls than boys. Juvenile justice experts say frequently girls are running away from abuse in their homes.


CORLEY: In Louisville, Ky., 24-year-old Jasmine Foust stands in a grassy area on the campus of YouthBuild Louisville, an education and job training program.

JASMINE FOUST: We've got the roosters and the bunnies back here and the little chickens.

CORLEY: Foust is married and has a young child - quite a different lifestyle from her teenage years.

FOUST: My first charge - let's see. I was 14, and it was for drinking.

CORLEY: Foust says she was sexually and physically abused as a young child. She was later adopted. But Foust says, as an adolescent, she began to have flashbacks and started acting out. Police picked her up for public intoxication when she was 14, months after she was sexually assaulted at a party.

FOUST: And they kept me for three days, so I was sitting in the juvenile section of jail. And I got out, and I proceeded to lash out in any way I possibly could.

CORLEY: Kentucky's Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley says it'd be difficult to determine whether status offenses are a gateway to more criminal behavior for girls since juvenile records are sealed. But Tilley says incarcerating them for low-level offenses is not an answer.

JOHN TILLEY: Because we know the research is clear. Once they do have any touch with the juvenile justice system, it's far more likely they come back as an adult. And that's what I think is lost on some who think that, you know, scaring these young women, you know, these young girls straight is the way to go.

CORLEY: Some in Kentucky argue that part of the problem is recalcitrant judges who believe the valid court order exception must remain, that detention might just turn a kid around.

LUCINDA MASTERTON: We get a lot of training on this. I don't know of any judges who believe that you should lock up kids to teach them a lesson, especially the status kids that we're dealing with.

CORLEY: That's Judge Lucinda Masterton, a Fayette County Family Court judge based in Lexington, Ky. Masterton says there's been big changes when it comes to status offense cases, and incarcerated kids are only in a facility for a short time.

MASTERTON: Less than 24 hours. Frankly, if we had a better place to put them than the jail that was safe, we would put them there. We do have a detention alternative facility. But if they don't have room, or if they refuse to take her, then our only option is the jail.

CORLEY: Whether judges order detention varies by county. And some argue Kentucky may have fewer options in rural areas of the state because there are only a handful of emergency shelters. Jasmine Foust says she understands the complications. But sometimes teens are teens, and Kentucky just has to provide more programs for troubled kids instead of detention.

FOUST: Like me, you know, the things that I've been through, look at the outcome with my story. There's so much to learn that, you know, you can teach kids.

CORLEY: Last year, Congress did pass legislation that puts limits on the valid court order exception but didn't get rid of it completely. That change could mean fewer juveniles will be detained for status offenses. But in Kentucky, lawmakers say a complete ban on incarcerations isn't likely anytime soon. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Lexington, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARKTICA'S "ROOFTOP FILMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.