Kentucky Politics

A bill that would prevent some teenagers from automatically being tried as adults in the court system passed out of a committee in the Kentucky legislature on Thursday.

Senate Bill 36, the so-called “juvenile justice bill,” would do away with the state’s automatic transfer law, which requires minors age 14 or older to be tried in adult court if they are charged with a crime involving a firearm.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield is a Republican from Crofton and has sponsored versions of the measure for the last three years, saying that automatic transfer policies contribute to the overrepresentation of young Black people in the justice system.

Westerfield says instead of automatically sending the cases to adult court, judges would have the discretion of what to do.

“It can still be transferred, but it’s entirely up to the county attorney to make that motion and the district judge to weigh those factors,” Westerfield said.

The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Westerfield chairs. It can now be voted on by the full Senate.

Nearly every state in the country passed automatic transfer laws in the early 1990s, following a tough-on-crime movement that sought to prevent “super predators” and gang activity involving young people.

Kentucky’s automatic transfer law dates back to 1996. According to the ACLU of Kentucky, 53% of young people charged as adults in the state are Black, though just 8% of the state’s population is Black.

The bill has yet to pass out of the legislature. In 2020, it passed out the Senate but didn’t make it out of the House.

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Paducah, voted against the bill.

“I’m going to have to go back and check my thoughts, I know there was some intense discussion and I do have concerns based on some personal experiences on this,” Carroll said.

Carroll voted against the bill last year, citing the Marshall County High School shooting. The alleged shooter’s attorneys fought to keep the trial in juvenile court, but his case was automatically transferred to circuit court.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, praised the bill passing out of committee.

Youth of color continue to be overrepresented in the youth justice system at all points, and the disparities have grown in recent years,” Brooks said in a statement. “An efficient and effective juvenile justice system holds kids accountable, helps them grow up to become contributing members of their community, and increases public safety, and today, the Senate Judiciary Committee took steps to do just that.”

The measure is one of several criminal justice reform measures being considered by the legislature this year.

The committee also passed Senate Bill 84, which would ban the solitary confinement of pregnant inmates in Kentucky prisons and expands the reasons a pregnant person could get a special release to include addiction treatment.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.