Disproportionate minority contact speaks to "implicit bias, racial bias," Westerfield says

01/25/2017 12:29 PM

One Kentucky state Senator is speaking out and proposing a solution over what he sees as racial bias within Kentucky’s justice system dealing with kids.

Three years ago, Sen. Whitney Westerfield propelled a comprehensive set of reforms detailing how Kentucky should handle doling out justice to minors who have broken the law. The reforms passed in Senate Bill 200 during the 2014 legislative session are now being used in state’s across the nation, but Westerfield still sees areas to take action.

Quoting Frederick Douglas, a Republican state lawmaker is attempting to build strong children, rather than repairing broken men.

When the legislature reconvenes in February, the Senate Judiciary chair will file Senate Bill 20, which is aimed at reducing disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile system, and setting a base for the age at which children would be allowed to be put in secure detention facilities.

Data shows that more Black youth are being charged with offenses, but Westerfield’s legislation would seek for additional agencies to compile data, in part to determine where problems arise, and ask those agencies to develop and implement a plan to correct the issues.

Agencies named in the soon-to-be-filed legislation include: the Department of Juvenile Justice, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department for Community Based Services and the Department of Education.

According to data from 2013 compiled by Kentucky Youth Advocates, Black youth under the age of 18 in Kentucky are more than 2.5 times as likely as other youth to be charged with an offense.

For Westerfield the data shows “implicit bias, racial bias” in the system.

“When you talk about a juvenile case, that child has multiple points of contact at different stages,” he said. “It could be with law enforcement, it could with a school or administrator, it could be with a court designated worker, it could be with a social worker with the cabinet. There are 14 ways that you could find that, and that’s part of the importance of getting that data in.”

“The point of breaking it out by agency that way is so we can identify where those points of contact are that occur that are creating the problem.”

The second major component of the bill will establish a “minimum age of criminal responsibility,” which his bill will set at 10-years old.

“There’s not a bright-line rule that says, you can’t charge this child with a crime,” Westerfield said relating the story of a Paducah juvenile justice detention center which was holding a 7 year old last year.

Westerfield described the facility holding the 7-year old boy as a “prison.”

“It’s got controlled doors at every single location – controlled by a single control room like county jails, or state prisons,” he said. “Their movements are controlled, what they do every day is controlled. it is a secure facility it is not a boy’s home or something more relaxed — it is a prison for kids.”

While this case struck a nerve, Westerfield said there are some children who belong in such secure facilities, but those are for children “who are old enough to know better.”

Ten-years old is that “bright line” in the bill, but Westerfield said there could be some wiggle room on what exactly the age should be, but the idea behind it remains.

“A child thinks of their behavior differently as an adult does.”

The Senator from Hopkinsville continued by warning the legislation does not remove consequence.

“If a 10-year old kid goes out and commits a pretty serious offense we shouldn’t just ignore it — and no one is proposing that — I’m not proposing that,” he said. “That child should have access to other treatment or care. Maybe there’s a mental health issue there that needs to be addressed. Maybe there’s an abuse issue at home that needs to be addressed.”

Watch the full interview below for more on the legislation and what Westerfield has to say about the case of 16 -year old Gynnya McMillen who died in a Kentucky juvenile detention center last year, and about the plight of Kentucky’s social workers.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.