Christian County government, school district leaders and others discuss "unintended consequences" of state's juvenile justice reform, including racial disparities

Kentucky New Era, Hopkinsville, Nov. 2, 2016

Racial disparity in juvenile system discussed
By Melissa Pettitt 
Concerned citizens, law enforcement officers, school district employees, social workers and city and county government officials packed a classroom Tuesday night at the Boys and Girls Club in Hopkinsville all for one common goal – to have a conversation about racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

The Boys and Girls Club of Hopkinsville hosted the forum led by Radcliff pastor Edward L. Palmer, Sr., member of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and chair of Kentucky subcommittee on Equity and Justice for All Youth.

“This is a conversation we need to have on a community level,” said Palmer. “We need to partner together to look at our data … and find out what’s causing those disparities and then come together to resolve those issues.”

One of the issues Palmer talked about was what he called “unintended consequences” of Kentucky S.B. 200, sponsored by District 3 senator Whitney Westerfield in 2014. The bill’s purpose is to “steer more youthful offenders to treatment instead of detention,” according to an Aug. 28, 2014, press release from then-governor Steve Beshear’s office.

Palmer praised Westerfield for his work on the bill to keep low level offenders out of the system, saying it was working, however data he presented from the Juvenile Offender Resource Information (August 2014) showed that 62 percent of low level offenders were Caucasian. His argument that S.B. 200 is only beneficial to 24 percent of African-American youth who are low level offenders.

“Our system is getting darker,” said Palmer. “We’re working very hard to correct that with a DOC (Department of Corrections) specific bill that addresses looking at racial disparities … and developing strategies to reduce those racial disparities.”

The goal, Palmer said, is to provide more alternatives to detention.

“Judges have a lot of discretion,” Palmer said. “There’s a lot of things they can do with kids when they have that kid in front of them, but when the only option they have is detention, guess where the kid ends up going?”

Judge Adams, who presides over Christian County juvenile court, was present and both he and Palmer spoke to the group about the desire to start a juvenile advisory board in Christian County to address creating alternatives to detention for Christian County youth.

“Let’s build a system to keep our kids right here in our community,” said Palmer. “Let’s build a system to keep our kids out of our juvenile justice system, and where possible, keep them out of court.”

Christian County Publics Schools has also been working on building a system that keeps youth out of the juvenile system and in school, said Kim Stevens, district discipline administrator for the Christian County Board of Education. She said the district has been working with Judge Adams, the Christian County Sheriff’s Office and Hopkinsville Police Department on a memorandum of understanding to issue warnings and interventions to youth before sending them to a court designated worker.

They’ve also implemented programs to keep those students in school and learning, Stevens said, in hopes of keeping them out of even more trouble.

“Normally when we’ve had kids who’ve been in fights … we’ve sent them home for three days. What do they do for those three days?” Stevens said. “We started the SOS (save our students) program where instead of them being suspended … they go to a program at the alternative school, that is separate from the alternative school, and they do the work they would have done at school. They’re continuing to get their education, they have a consequence, the parents have to take them and pick them up so that there is parent involvement and with that program alone, last year we saved over 1,000 instructional days for kids that would have been suspended.”

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