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Hopkinsville Residents Work Towards Overcoming Racial Disparity in Juvenile Justice System

Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Hopkinsville area educators, social workers, law enforcement and members of the criminal justice system met Tuesday night at the local Boys and Girls Club to discuss racial disparity in the juvenile detention system and its effect on the community. 

Pastor Edward Palmer is on a criminal justice subcommittee of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, dealing with disproportionate minority contact (DMC) issues across systems. Palmer led a discussion on issues in Kentucky and the state.

Kentucky Data

Palmer presented numerous sets of data showing disparities in both Kentucky and the nation also comparing available data from Christian County. The goal, he said, is to drill down and find the causes in the data and then address the issues.

Before outlining some of this data, some statewide context, as presented: according to the Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 83% of Kentucky's youth is white and 10% is black. Approximately 65% of minority youth populations in Kentucky are in four counties: Jefferson, Fayette, Christian and Hardin Counties.

In Kentucky, African American children are more likely to be placed in restrictive settings like residential facilities, while white children are more likely to be placed in the least restrictive settings: relative's homes.

Committed and confined youth tend to be male, half misdemeanor and half felony. While more than half are white, roughly 35% are black (three times state representation).

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

The percentage of black youth adjudicated on a class A, B or C felony, placed in youth detention centers or placed out of home (including detention) and average time spent in custody is disproportionately higher than white youth, the data shows.

Palmer said the impact of this decreases the chance of high school graduation and increases the chances of incarceration as an adult. "So if we get it wrong when they are juveniles, then the chances are that we're setting those kids up to be adult criminals. They're going to be incarcerated as adults. That's what the research tells us," he said.

Missteps Shouldn't Mean Mishandling

According to the 2012 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. In an emotional moment, Palmer showed a photo of his grandsons. He said while they are good kids, by genetics one of them will misstep (Palmer said his son is incarcerated). He said when they turn 12 and testosterone kicks in they will invariably do 'something stupid.'

But just because they misstep doesn't mean somebody has to mishandle them. So when we're talking about these data sets, we're not just talking about behaviors that kids do. We're talking about the responses and reactions of the adults that are responsible for these kids," he said.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Kids need to be given the opportunity to recover from those missteps. One instance in the data was the number of kids charged with 'disorderly conduct' in school, which Palmer said is easy to bait a kid into:

"So when you get in a kid's personal space and start yelling at them, you're increasing the possibility that this kid is probably going to do something that resembles disorderly conduct. That's why the police officers say that's one of the easiest one to bait them into because all you've got to do is put them under pressure. You get in their face and start yelling at them, chances are they're going to say something stupid. Well 82 percent of the disorderly conduct charges coming out of Kentucky schools are African American."

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Judge Discretion

Palmer said research suggests disparity in how school discipline is carried out contributes to the achievement gap and that there's a connection between suspension and expulsion to ultimate involvement in the juvenile justice system.

"Most of this data isn't about the worst things that we think: racism, bigotry, hatred. Some of is just policy. Some of it is just practice. Some of it is the lack of community resources. Sometimes the judge wants to send a kid home, but he can't because home is worse in his eyes than in a detention center. And we know that when you send a kid to a detention center you're taking a great chance that that kid is going to come out worse. We know that. But sometimes that's the only option the judge has."

Judges have a lot of discretion, he said, but when the only option is detention, that's where kids will go. Same with police - there needs to be more options to use discretionary power and authority to send kids the other way instead of deeper into the system. Palmer wants to evaluate evidence-based practices across the state to make sure they best serve the minority population. He said he wants to build services and resources for kids and families in the community and to educate the community. 

To send a kid to a home where people don't look like them or to another county entirely could traumatize them. "Juvenile detention and foster homes are not the place for our kids. I haven't found a social worker yet who thinks foster care works. You take those kids out of their home you traumatize them," Palmer said.

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Juvenile Advisory Board

Jim Adams is Vice Chief Regional Judge for Christian County Division 1. Working with schools, he has developed a memorandum of understanding enacted in June modeled after a long-running program by Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Georgia, that keeps kids in school instead of taking them out of school and focuses on 'kids we are afraid of and not kids we are mad at.'

"Get them their education because we know that if they get their education, their chances of being in the adult criminal justice system and if we keep them out of detention their chances of being in the criminal justice system are greatly reduced," Adams said.

Adams said before SB200, he would have had juvenile dockets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. With the MOU and SB200, he said his court caseload has been reduced by more than half and hasn't had any on Thursdays in 13 weeks.

Misdemeanors would have normally put students under arrest, but now there are warnings for first incidents, school-based therapist intervention for second incidents and third warnings to to court designated workers. Thus far in a school system of 10,000: there were 181 total warnings and only 15 had charges. In a related Save Our Students program (where instead of being sent home for suspension students received normal course instruction at an alternative school), more than 1,000 instructional days were saved.

Adams plans to start a juvenile advisory board of diverse volunteers, to advise on options for placement decisions for minority kids to be placed in culturally responsive environments. He said he hopes to have the first meeting later this month.  

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Hopeful for Hopkinsville

Palmer said he is hopeful that changes underway in Hopkinsville will alter this trend and anticipates the 2016-17 data. "They're doing a lot to keep kids in school and keep them out of court. I think the new data is going to reveal great changes in Hopkinsville. So I'm very encouraged," Palmer said.

Palmer said Senate Bill 200 is doing a good job taking kids out of the front end of the system, but an unintended consequence is that kids who are charged with lower level offenses are disproportionately white.

"What we're seeking to do is to level the playing field by actually looking at some of the reasons why African American kids are typically charged with higher level offenses. And how do we help get some of them out of the system at the front end as well," Palmer said.

He praised work by State Senator Whitney Westerfield, who he said is seeking to modify SB200. He said work is underway on a Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) specific effort to collect data to get at the root cause of disparity.

Palmer said he plans on returning to Hopkinsville after the Juvenile Advisory Board is formed, to look at data around policing. 

Jamesarae Bush is Executive Assistant Human Relations Commission, the organization that helped bring Pastor Palmer to Hopkinsville. She said it starts with groups meeting together in forums, then moving forward with a plan to get the community involved.

William Coleman is a mentor, also running for the City Council in Ward 8. He said he is impressed with work by local police and social workers. He said working with at-risk and troubled youth is a delicate process: "You have to see where they are. Meet them there and help build them up. And you have to be patient. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of time."

Police Chief Clayton Sumner said the forum was a good way of getting people talking, not just to complain but to find ways to make things better. He said local police have been trying to improve areas where there have been issues in the past and praised schools for making an effort to keep kids in class.

"I don't want police officers in the schools being enforcers. We're there to make sure it's a safe learning environment. And you know what, teenage kids are going to have squabbles and disagreements. You don't go to jail for that. You shouldn't go to jail for that as a teenager," Sumner said.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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