Disparities persist among Kentucky youth in juvenile justice system

Lawmakers to look at policy to get youth working and ‘find purpose and meaning’

By: - June 20, 2023 4:07 pm

Cortney Downs, the Chief Equity Officer for Kentucky Youth Advocates

Black and multiracial youth in Kentucky are more likely to have complaints brought against them – essentially, police reports – and are disproportionately detained, Kentucky Youth Advocates staff told legislators in Frankfort Tuesday. 

Cortney Downs, the chief equity officer for Kentucky Youth Advocates, said to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council and the Commission on Race & Access to Opportunity that Kentucky needs more data collection on “systemic factors” leading to disparities. 

The Kentucky Lantern reported in February that there are a disproportionate number of Black youth in Kentucky’s detention centers. A grassroots organization whose intervention work has seen some success, One Lexington thinks if a similar program can be implemented across the state, violence among younger Kentuckians could decline. 

“There has been tremendous progress that has been made over quite a bit of time,” Downs said. “But there are still some of those areas where the racial disparities exist.” 

Downs said Tuesday that Black youth in the commonwealth are much more likely to be complained about. They are also detained three times more frequently than their representation in the state’s population. 

In 2022, the youth population of Kentucky was 81% white and 11% Black. But that same year, complaints that resulted in detainment were 39% Black and 46% white.

Credit: Kentucky Youth Advocates

Additionally, Downs said, an Arizona study showed youth of color are more likely to have complaints in their files. Those may include accusations that they don’t show remorse or are uncooperative. That hurts their chances of getting their cases diverted

Diversion holds youth “account­able for their behav­ior with­out resort­ing to legal sanc­tions, court over­sight or the threat of con­fine­ment,” according to the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion. 

The foundation says diversion “is more effec­tive in reduc­ing recidi­vism than con­ven­tion­al judi­cial inter­ven­tions” and youth whose cases are diverted are 45% less likely to reoffend. KYA wants to see more diversion implemented in the state. 

One Lexington 

More solutions for the state’s juvenile justice system may be found in a Lexington program that lawmakers are examining. One Lexington works to use governmental resources and community partnerships to combat gun violence among youth, director Devine Carama told lawmakers. 

Among the work One Lexington does is mediating arguments between youth in school to keep things from turning violent outside school and bringing in police partners to help combat generational fear of or mistrust of law enforcement officers. 

Carama said he believes these grassroots efforts can be thanked for lowering shootings. As of June 2022, he said, Lexington had more than 20 homicides. It’s seen nine so far this year. There were also nearly 60 nonfatal shootings at this time in 2022, he said. That’s down to about 30 this year. 

“Obviously this isn’t something we celebrate, because there’s still people that have lost their lives,” Carama told legislators. “But we do think that the work that we’re doing with our community partners is making a difference and making an impact.” 

Meanwhile, Carama said, the access that youth have to high power firearms is “unfathomable.” 

“Sometimes I wonder if we’re chasing our tails,” he said. “I had a 14-year-old tell me once: ‘Mr. Devine, it’s easier for me to get a gun than to get a job.’” 

Greensburg Republican Sen. David P. Givens, President Pro Tempore, said legislators will look at several collaboration points. Those include looking at ways to get youth working and “helping them find purpose and meaning” in life. 

Credit: Kentucky Youth Advocates


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Sarah Ladd
Sarah Ladd

Sarah Ladd is a Louisville-based journalist from West Kentucky who's covered everything from crime to higher education. She spent nearly two years on the metro breaking news desk at The Courier Journal. In 2020, she started reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and has covered health ever since. As the Kentucky Lantern's health reporter, she focuses on mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, children's welfare, COVID-19 and more.