Friday, December 22, 2006

Juvenile delinquents and 'least restrictive environment'

Judge: State breaking law in placement of juveniles
Yetter, Deborah, Louisville Courier-Journal, Dec. 21, 2005.

The state Juvenile Justice Department is violating the law by sending hundreds of young offenders to live in state-run centers when they might be better helped in foster care or group homes, a judge has ruled.

Now the department must reassess each of the about 400 youths in its 11 centers to determine whether they should be in "less-restrictive" settings, according to an order by Franklin Circuit Judge William L. Graham.

Some juveniles are being sent to centers that are locked and surrounded by fences."They committed low-level offenses and ended up in high-level facilities," said public defender Gail Robinson, who filed the lawsuit in 2004 on behalf of teens she believes were wrongly placed in such centers.

The case initially involved 15 juveniles but later was expanded by Graham as a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all youths in state centers.

Robinson said two teenage girls she represented in the case are among 13 girls allegedly sexually mistreated by a male worker at a juvenile center in Morehead. Both were sent there for minor offenses and should have been placed in a group home, she said.

Juvenile Justice Department officials disputed Graham's order and said they plan to appeal."We very strongly disagree with the judge's ruling, and we are going to pursue this as far as we can to try to do the right thing," Commissioner Bridget Skaggs Brown said.

Graham issued the order on Nov. 1 but delayed enforcing it until Monday, when he heard the state's request that it be suspended while the state appeals. He refused to do so.

As a result, the department will begin reassessing youths during the appeals process, Brown said.

Danger to the community?
Brown said that by reassessing the cases, the department might end up releasing dangerous offenders into less-secure settings.

"We believe there will be irreparable harm to the community if we are going to be forced to release some youths out in the community who have committed very serious criminal acts," she said.

Robinson scoffed at that assertion, saying the department's own procedures clearly allow it to place dangerous youths who commit serious crimes in secure, residential facilities.

"That's overblown," Robinson said. "I don't think they're going to have to release anyone dangerous."

Instead, the ruling might force the state to release youths such as a teenage girl from Jefferson County represented by Robinson, she said.

That girl expected to wind up in a group home after a misdemeanor assault conviction for fighting, but instead was sent to the Morehead Youth Development Center in Eastern Kentucky because the state ignored its rules, Robinson said.

Robinson challenged the placement and a Jefferson juvenile court judge ordered the girl's release.In the meantime, the girl became one of 13 with whom a former youth worker had inappropriate sexual contact, state investigators determined. The worker was fired in December 2003 and is facing two felony counts of sexual abuse involving two of the girls.

Juveniles misplaced
The lawsuit arose over a system the state uses to assess youths who are found guilty of crimes. It was created in 1995, when Kentucky entered a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to improve conditions at its juvenile facilities.

Federal officials found that youths at residential centers had been subjected to abuse, neglect and time in isolation cells, and also were not getting needed behavioral and psychological help.

Under the consent decree, the state devised a system to assess youths based on criminal history, the seriousness of the offense and other factors. The agreement called for the state to place youths in "the least restrictive environment " to help rehabilitate them, Graham's order said.

That language was added to state law in 1996 and included in regulations that govern the Juvenile Justice Department, according to the order. Those regulations call for the department to score youths on various factors, such as the gravity of the offense, and then assign them to facilities ranging from foster homes to locked centers.

But Robinson and her associate, Timothy D. Shull, both with the Department of Public Advocacy in Frankfort, alleged in the lawsuit that several years ago, the state began to disregard those rules and began to send most youths to residential centers - without any change in state law.

Robinson said she and Shull filed suit after they noticed - along with other public defenders who routinely visit juvenile centers - that an increasing number of youths were being held for relatively minor offenses.

Graham found that the state erred in sending all 15 of the original plaintiffs to residential centers when their scores would have qualified them for community placements.

And though the department claimed it has discretion to revise its procedures, it must still follow those spelled out in law, he said.

Robinson said Graham's order is a straightforward interpretation of the law. "They're not going to win an appeal, " she said.


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