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Senate Bill Tackles Harsher Treatment of Kentucky's Youth of Color

Kentucky Senate Judiciary Chair Whitney Westerfield is pushing legislation aimed at reducing disparities in how minority youth are treated by the juvenile-justice system. (LRC Public Information)
Kentucky Senate Judiciary Chair Whitney Westerfield is pushing legislation aimed at reducing disparities in how minority youth are treated by the juvenile-justice system. (LRC Public Information)
February 15, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Legislation aimed at addressing the disparities in how Kentucky treats minority youth is on the Senate Judiciary Committee's agenda for Thursday.

The Senate Judiciary chair Whitney Westerfield has filed Senate Bill 20 that he says will collect "consistent" data on age, gender and race from places young people come into contact with: schools, law enforcement, courts and social services.

"Until we know where it is, because there are half a dozen or so points of contact for a kid in the system, we can't go very broad into policy changes to address it," he said.

Westerfield says it's the next step in adjusting the state's juvenile justice system, which underwent enormous reform three years ago. He hopes to take a vote on his bill in committee Thursday.

Edward Palmer, the pastor of The Sign of the Dove Ministries in Radcliff and a member of the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, says after "kicking the can down the road" for decades, he's confident Westerfield's bill will move Kentucky closer to addressing the problem.

"To clearly identify what's causing those disparities and give us strategies as to how to begin to create better outcomes for minority kids," said Palmer.

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, black youth are not more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than are white youth.

Westerfield says the harsher treatment can be "jaw dropping," citing statistics from last school year in Jefferson County where nearly 1,200 of the 1,700 school complaints were made against African-Americans, even though only 10 percent of the students are black.

"I don't know think anybody can say it's a school thing, a law-enforcement thing, a social-worker thing, we don't know," Westerfield added. "But we know that more kids than ought to be in there are in there, so yes, we know that it's there."

Because Palmer says, when kids self-report, research shows they say they all do the same thing.

"So the kids are telling us, 'Yeah, I try pot just like the kid in the west end of Louisville tries pot,'" Palmer continued. "So they're all doing the same thing. They all think the same way. The difference is the communities in which they live in and how their deviant behavior plays out and how the defiant behavior is detected or not detected."

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY