Is juvenile justice reform a key to preventing violence?

Solving the puzzle of Kentucky's juvenile justice reform

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Kentucky Senator Whitney Westerfield has pushed for criminal justice reform efforts in Kentucky but this week he's meeting with a small group of lawmakers from other states with a focus on a national solution to juvenile justice reform.

As Senator Westerfield works with his colleagues from 14 other states, he can’t help but think of the ongoing situation in Louisville where the murder rate is on pace to set another record in 2017.

Since 2015, several murders have included juveniles as victims or the suspected killer.

“When children are children, we have a better opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives and we don't always do that by locking them up”, the 3rd District Republican, Westerfield said. “We don't always do that by arresting them. Sometimes that means we mentor them, we get them in front of positive sources of support and encouragement and engagement and not lock them up and put them through a court process."

He thought Senate Bill 20 was part of the solution. The measure failed during the last legislative session but would have forced some state agencies to study "DMC" or Disproportionate Minority Contact of those in the legal system.

His proposal was inspired by a jarring set of statistics regarding juvenile crime.

“One of the charges, you've 85 percent white kids and 13 percent black kids but you've got 85 percent of kids being charged with “x crime” being black and only ten percent being charged white,” Sen. Westerfield said.

He added, “It's bologna. It's absolutely false to suggest that so, where is the bias coming in? It's coming in somewhere so I've asked these agencies to help us find it.” 

Senator Westerfield wrote a request to the agencies that would have been forced to keep statistics on a juvenile's age, race, gender and poverty level. He said most have agreed to track the statistics.

Senator Gerald Neal, a Democrat, represents Jefferson County and applauds his colleague's efforts. But Senator Neal knows that juvenile justice is just a piece of a complex puzzle.

"Remember back in the 80's and so forth, and parts of the early 90's, it was all about lock 'em and up throw away the key. Let's double up everything. Let's be harsh”, Senator Neal said.

“Well, there is a place for that for some very harsh people out here but the fact of the matter is you can't put them all in jail. We're not going to jail this problem away. So we now have to take a look, do the hard work, the heavy lifting, to do the things that are smart.” 

Despite the failure of Senate Bill 20, Senator Westerfield insists that work is moving forward to tackle challenges facing The Commonwealth but it could take time for the DMC data to be collected and digested into potential useful legislation which means it could take a year or two before its effects are felt.

© 2017 WHAS-TV


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