LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Being a teenager there are certain things your look forward to before transitioning to adulthood – learning how to drive, going to the prom and making more decisions without your parents.
For some teens, the harsh realities of growing up before your time or having to hustle to make a way for yourself doesn’t permit those joys.
Lamonte Gracia, who calls Newburg home, was a teenager when he was arrested for burglary. It was his first time being incarcerated.
“I didn’t have as much as everybody else had. So, I always felt like – out of place,” he said.
Living in his neighborhood, Lamonte called his upbringing “rough” and being a product of his environment, he didn’t see another way out.
“Because that’s all I’ve witnessed – my whole life is jail and death.”
Now 22-years-old, the things he should be reminiscing about with his peers are out of his grasp because of his trouble with the law.
“I ain’t went to prom. I missed my 18th birthday – my 21st birthday. I never had a car,” he said.
Like Lamonte’s case, Jefferson County prosecutors are seeing an alarming trend of kids committing crimes. They say not only the ages are trending down, the crimes are becoming more violent.
“It used to be that it would be 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds who were being brought upstairs as youthful offenders. But now – I mean they’re 14-year-old carjackers,” Elizabeth Brown Jones, assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, said. “Some of the murders – a lot of the murders have been juvenile-related, either victim or defendant.”
Getting to the root of the issue, police and prosecutors have identified three main reasons for the uptick in the violence.
“A lot of what I’ve seen seems to involve social media slights, different groups of people are able to continue to have like beefs and frictions that may be without social media, they wouldn’t have that connection,” Critt Cunningham, assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, said.
Arguments and bullying escalate on social media and while not every homicide has a direct link, it’s an ever-increasing presence in their cases.
“I’m not saying like social media causes this, but social media is the platform on which they insult each other now,” Jones said. “We do have some cases where we know for sure that the fight started on social media. And I would imagine a lot of these drive-bys are for that reason.”
It’s not a coincidence that two of the most violent years in Louisville’s history happened during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Gyms, community centers and other extracurricular activities were either shut down or canceled. In some cases, many of the kids were left at home instead of in school.
Jones thinks it could be the isolation of the pandemic as a contributing factor behind the crime and violence but said it started well before.
Police believe it's the lack of a juvenile detention system in the city after the youth detention center closed in 2019.
“The biggest reason that we have an increase in shooters that are juveniles is the lack of consequences,” Lt. Donny Burbrink said. “There are no consequences for these juveniles in this city. They know it.”
WHAS11 News reached out Louisville Metro Police and while no one was available for an on-camera interview, Chief Erika Shields addressed it on the department’s podcast.
“[I] think police more than anyone see the trajectory that these kids are on and know that if there’s not some level of interference run, they are going to end up in a body bag,” she explained.
It’s a fine line between balancing a fair sentence and committing a kid into the system.
“We’ve got to deal with the people who are committing carjackings right now – like it’s that they have to be taken off the street, at least for a short time,” Jones said. “You cannot just bring somebody in, send them back out to the same neighborhood with the same friends and hope that a day in the courtroom fixed it.”
Gracia was resentenced at 18-years-old, like most juveniles in Kentucky. He’s spent the last four years in state prison. He admits he made a mistake but feels like he could have had another chance. It’s a problem he says has more to do with resources or lack thereof.
Officials agree that funds for youth services have been on the decline for years.
“Some people in the state are a little more fiscally minded, and they don't want to invest as much resources into that program and those programs as they need to,” Cunningham said.
This year, more teens are being killed and it’s a reality Gracia is aware of. He’s had friends dies from gun violence while being locked up.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be touched on or this is just gonna keep happening. People are just gonna keep dying, kids are gonna keep going to jail. It’s just gonna be the same cycle.”