On the docket: Ky. Chief Justice on addressing equal justice, sentencing guidelines and heroin

10/25/2016 02:13 PM

Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton sits on the bench during a time where there are large conversations happening about race and equal justice, the state is facing the brunt of an opiate epidemic and the courts are coming under political scrutiny.

Minton acknowledges the challenges justices and judges face in the commonwealth and across the country, and said whatever perceived inequities there are in the system should be addressed both for those in the system and on the bench.

Penal Code Reforms

There’s a conversation happening among lawmakers, judges, lawyers, advocates and the faith community aimed at seeking better outcomes as Kentucky’s prison populations grow and rates of recidivism are 43 percent.

Minton said he was “pleased” Go. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, is taking another look at reforms in the penal system and has set up a task force which he called “timely and important.”

The chief justice said the panel is an admission that prisons are not doing the job of reforming citizens who have run afoul of the law.

“I think we all know that,” he said. “We’ve always had that means of taking people out of society and isolating them for punishment, but punishment is just a piece of this. We’re trying to deal with — because they’re going to come out of prison.”

Minton said he and others are finding that individuals leaving prisons have not reformed and productive members of society.

“Yes, we need to look at this.”

Equal Justice?

According to data compiled by Kentucky Youth Advocates, Black youth under the age of 18 in Kentucky are more than 2.5 times as likely as White and Hispanic youth to be charged with a public offense.

Black youth were also more than four times as likely as White and Hispanic youth to spend time in a secure juvenile detention facility, according to the group’s research.

Minton said the Administrative Office of the Courts have become more aware of the disproportionate minority contact within the system as technology has improved.

“We have actually sounded the alarm,” he said. “These are the cases that are brought to us, the court system doesn’t do the charging, nor the arresting.”

One way the courts are addressing the issue is by informing schools, law enforcement and the Justice Cabinet of the “disparate numbers in an alarming rate.”

When asked if there is a bias outside of the courts, Minton said he could not say that, but said there needs to be constant vigilance.

“Inherit bias exists, and as courts we are responsible. … We are the institution that is expected to provide a level playing field that people that come to court don’t feel that they’re being singled out because of their race or because of any other aspect that would make them any different before the law,” he said.

Minton said now that the alarm has been raised lawmakers need to address the issue in the General Assembly.

Heroin in Kentucky

The increase in heroin and the opiate addiction that fuels it, is not only impacting the criminal courts, but also the family courts in the commonwealth.

“It’s a systemic problem, and it plays itself out in the destruction of families all across the Commonwealth,” Minton said.

Drug courts are also in the process of changing to deal with heroin, which Kentucky find itself at the epicenter. Courts in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky are trying to find ways to partner with one another to address the scourge.

Minton said all of the judges across the state have been invited to a meeting in Louisville in January of 2017 to discuss the latest scientific studies in dealing with opiates.

“I want Kentucky’s judges to have the very best and most current information based on what medicine and science is telling us about addiction, and how can we do a better job in our drug courts in sentencing and as family court judges in trying to address the opioid and heroin addiction,” he said.


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