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Report shows persistent racial disparities in Ky. juvenile justice system

Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Frankfort, Kentucky - State Capitol Building

Despite reforms to Kentucky’s juvenile justice system over the last decade, data shows Black kids continue to disproportionately end up in youth detention compared to white and Hispanic children.

Kentucky Youth Advocates, a statewide lobbying organization for kids, presented new data on racial disparities Tuesday during a legislative meeting. The analysis showed that while Black kids account for 11% of the state's population of children, more than 20% of kids in the juvenile justice system are Black.

Cortney Downs, a social worker with Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the total number of kids entering the state’s juvenile justice system have decreased since a major reform bill was passed in 2014.

“We’ve seen much fewer kids actually coming into the system, but those racial disparities have persisted,” Downs said.

The group presented the data during a joint meeting of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council and the Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity.

Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice has been plagued with scandals in recent years, including a recentseries of assaults, escapes and riots at youth detention facilities around the state.

The problems prompted state lawmakers to enact a set of reforms this year, largely focused on boosting security in the state’s network of youth detention facilities and attracting and retaining youth corrections staff.

Under current Kentucky law, kids who are suspected of committing a crime or chronically missing school aren’t automatically detained. A court-designated worker decides whether to send them home or put them in front of a judge, who has the final say. Starting in 2024, kids charged with certain violent crimes, including burglary, robbery or assault, will be automatically detained for up to 48 hours under a new law.

During the meeting Tuesday, Kentucky Youth Advocates showed data that revealed Black kids accused of a crime are more likely than white or Hispanic children to be referred into the justice system by police and school personnel. They’re also more likely to end up at a detention center rather than be released back to their parents.

The findings presented to state officials are consistent with what the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2018: that white kids have benefited from juvenile justice reforms far more than Black children.

The data, provided by Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts, showed many of the kids within the Department of Juvenile Justice’s detention centers also have one or more disabilities, including learning disorders and mental health issues.

Kentucky Youth Advocates pushed state legislators to expand access to diversion programs, which allow children to avoid detention and criminal records in exchange for participating in programs like anger management, job training and mental health counseling.

Downs argued that diversion improves educational attainment and family relationships. But data shows Black kids are less likely to receive diversion and are more likely than children of other races to have a judge or a prosecutor override a recommendation for diversion.

“We see similar trends when we look at national data,” Downs said. “You also see these trends persisting regardless of the offense category, so it could be a violent offense, a property offense or even a drug-related offense.”

Downs urged lawmakers to alleviate community factors that drive childhood misbehavior, like high rates of poverty and inter-family violence.

Between 2017 and 2022, roughly 90% of kids accused of crimes in Kentucky were able to complete their diversion program and avoid detention, according to the report by Kentucky Youth Advocates. Roughly 80% of kids accused of a status offense, like truancy or alcohol use, completed a diversion program during that same timeframe. Downs said the recidivism rate among youth who participated in diversion programs also fell sharply in recent years.

On Tuesday, Henderson County Attorney Steve Gold pushed back against the idea that diversion is always the best option, saying courts still need to be able to charge some kids as adults.

“We see this and we’re like ‘Okay, this has clearly not been successful because we have this new charge. Maybe this is going to take the additional resources, the additional oversight that a district court has,’” he said.

Sen. Robin Webb, a lawyer and Democrat from Grayson, also defended youth incarceration in some cases by telling a story about a constituent who spent time in the Boyd County Juvenile Detention Center.

“He said, ‘You know, I haven’t had an issue since then. I didn’t want to go back there,’” Webb said. “To that child, that [experience] had value.”

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Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.