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Youth Advocates Concerned Bill Would Shut Off Juvenile Records

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Critics of a bill pending before the General Assembly say it could cut off access to valuable information about possible cases of abuse in juvenile detention centers in Kentucky.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Robin Webb would make it tougher for the public or attorneys to gain access to a variety of records related to juvenile facilities, including claims of abuse and security information. Among the information affected by the proposal are security videos, transportation routes, schedules and some general security information.

Webb, D-Grayson, said the measure is consistent with Kentucky laws keeping most juvenile proceedings secret. The bill wouldn't be a drastic change from what the state currently does and wouldn't shut down all access to records at juvenile facilities, Webb said.

"It sounds fairly ominous at first," Webb said. "I think there are sufficient safeguards in this."

But the bill has caught the attention of the Department of Public Advocacy, Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit watchdog, and the Kentucky Press Association.

Tim Arnold, director of the post-trials division for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, said the bill creates unnecessary obstacles for attorneys representing detained juveniles to get records useful in a case.

In the proposal, "security" isn't defined, leaving open what exactly is exempt from inspection under the law, Arnold said.

"It also leaves important questions unanswered," Arnold said. Tara Grieshop, deputy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the proposal appears to put limits on what an attorney for a juvenile claiming abuse could get access to.

"At first glance, it might put up some roadblocks," Grieshop said.

Between 2004 and 2007, there were 278 claims of abuse in Kentucky's 11 development centers and 10 group homes for juvenile offenders, with 52 (18.7 percent) of those complaints verified, according to a survey conducted by The Associated Press. Kentucky had 48 claims of staff on youth sexual abuse, with five confirmed during that span.

The Associated Press contacted each state agency that oversees juvenile correction centers and asked for information on the number of deaths as well as the number of allegations and confirmed cases of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by staff members since Jan. 1, 2004. Kentucky had no deaths.

According to the survey, more than 13,000 claims of abuse were identified in juvenile correction centers around the country from 2004 through 2007 - a remarkable total, given that the total population of detainees was about 46,000 at the time the states were surveyed in 2007.

Just 1,343 of those claims of abuse identified by the AP were confirmed by various authorities. Of 1,140 claims of sexual abuse, 143 were confirmed by investigators.

Ashley Pack, an attorney for the Kentucky Press Association, said access to public information about abuses in juvenile facilities shouldn't be curtailed.

"Clearly, public oversight has been critical to correcting serious problems within juvenile facilities," Pack said.

Webb said that oversight won't end if the bill passes. It is
pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

"There are due process safeguards in here," Webb said.

Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, said the agency believes the bill is necessary for security reasons.

Brislin also said the focus of juvenile justice in Kentucky is changing emphasize more rehabilitation and less on incarceration.

"We're doing exactly what the intent was, to get them treatment and help that these young people need to help them turn their lives around," Brislin said.

Another bill pending in the General Assembly calls for the Supreme Court to create a pilot project in three to seven jurisdictions that would allow some juvenile hearings, at the discretion of local judges, to be open to the public. That bill is sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington.

In contrast to the bill that would close access to some information about juvenile detention, another pending bill calls for the Supreme Court to create a pilot project in three to seven jurisdictions that would allow some juvenile hearings, at the discretion of local judges, to be open to the public. That bill is sponsored by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington.
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The bill sponsored by Webb is House Bill 141. The bill sponsored
by Westrom is House Bill 421.
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Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.,
contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-03-02-08 1300EST


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