LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – In the last five years, the number of children Kentucky judges have sent to jail for skipping school, being out of control, running away from home and other noncriminal offenses has plummeted.

In 2010, 1,335 Kentucky children were sent to juvenile jails for so-called "status offenses” -- offenses that aren't considered criminal and don't apply to adults.

While Kentucky is one of the few remaining states that still jails juveniles for status offenses, the number fell 56 percent by the end of last year, to 586, in part because of a changing philosophy about the damage caused by locking up kids as well as a concern over the cost of incarceration and new legislation aimed at stopping the practice.

“Five years ago, Kentucky was implementing practices that were bad for kids, hurt community safety and was busting the budget,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “Where we find ourselves today is in a total opposite situation. The practices we are now implementing are good for kids, increase public safety and are really smart when it comes to use of state money.”

In 2014, legislators passed a bill meant to reduce the number of jailed status offenders. The bill also affects juveniles who commit non-violent criminal offenses.

“We can do better than to put a child who has missed school, who has not committed a crime, in a (jail) cell, and that was the impetus behind the movement,” said Secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet John Tilley, who helped push the bill as a state legislator two years ago.

In an interview, Tilley said putting status offenders in jail with juveniles who may have committed serious crimes causes more harm to non-violent kids. And the cost to the state is about $100,000 per year for each child, he added.

Senate Bill 200, which took effect last summer, places more kids in diversion programs rather than jail, created a review process to look at cases before they went to court and steers juveniles into community services to help with underlying problems. Also, the bill requires the collection of data about status offenders, including recidivism rates, and ensures the information will be shared among counties.

The goal is to prevent jailing status offenders in all but the most difficult cases. Each county is mandated to have a “FAIR” team made up of prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, mental health professionals and other juvenile justice stakeholders, who review every case before the status offender goes into court, in an effort to find a better solution.

For example, instead of being sent to court, a troubled 17-year-old who repeatedly missed school met with a FAIR team which recommended he participate in the school’s ROTC program. FAIR members also met with the teen’s family and required him to complete a truancy diversion program, according to records provided to WDRB from Kentucky Youth Advocates. The teen has completed the program and had no other truancy issues.

“Mechanisms were put in place to get to the core of issues,” Brooks said. “Why was that young person skipping school? Why were they running away from home? Let’s figure out what’s going on.”

The result in the last year, Tilley said, has been a 73 percent reduction in non-violent youths being jailed. The number of juveniles ending up in a courtrooms at all has declined by about half in the last year.

FAIR teams have already reviewed more than 2,000 cases with 1,600 being resolved without the status offender having to go before a judge.

And the bill is expected to save millions – around $24 million in the next six years. The law dictates that about half of that money will go back into services for juvenile offenders.

The real savings to the state will come in closing youth detention centers if the number of arrested juveniles continues to fall. One center in Murray, Ky., has closed already, according to state officials.

But both Brooks and Tilley acknowledged that locking up more than 500 status offenders was still too many – and Kentucky still ranks among the top in the country.

 “We’ve got way too many (status offenders) being detained even though we are making progress,” Tilley said. “If you polled people who worked in the juvenile justice system, there is overwhelming support to ban jailing status offenders altogether. Most states don’t allow judges to lock up kids for status offenses. “

While more than half of the country still allows children to be detained for status offenses, only a handful of states still actively do it, according to a national study released last year.  At the time, based on numbers from 2010 to 2012, Kentucky trailed only Washington in total number of jailed status offenders.

Still, while judges across Kentucky have long differed about jailing status offenders, the numbers are falling across the board.

Of the counties that locked up the most status offenders in 2011, most reduced the numbers last year and some fell dramatically, according to state statistics.

Northern Kentucky's Kenton County led the state in jailing status offenders in 2011 with 174, but as of last year had reduced the number to 60.

Brooks said it will take more time for the bill to show its full effects, as it is still slowly being implemented across the state. FAIR groups are further along in some counties than others. It will also take some time for money saved from incarceration to be put back into the system for services to help keep kids out of jail, Brooks said.

And Tilley noted that some judges and school officials still believe jailing status offenders is a necessary evil and should remain an option.

One of the biggest lingering problems, Tilley noted, is that of runaways. Many places in Kentucky still don’t have alternatives other than jail.

“We need more shelters and safe houses,” he said.

That’s apparently the issue in Fayette County, which led the state with 85 jailed status offenders last year.

“My understanding is almost all of them are runaways, where we just have to put them somewhere safe for the night,” said Fayette County Family Court Judge Lucinda Masterton.  “It’s wonderful to have this very enlightened law. I  love it. I hate putting kids in jail. But we do not have anywhere else to put some kids who are really a danger to themselves. There are complex issues that we just can’t sort out in the middle of the night.”

In the last six months, however, Fayette County has begun collaborating with the University of Kentucky to house runaways who are victims of human trafficking at the university hospital, which should help cut the number of jailed status offenders.

“If we could figure out a place to put them that was safe and didn’t involve taking them to jail, we would have zero” status offenders, Masterton said of runaways.

And that is eventually the goal, said Tilley, for the state to not allow any status offenders to be locked up. 

"Anybody in this field would tell you that's not a good result for the kid," he said.

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