Kentucky is backing off a law it passed in the tough-on-crime 1990s under which minors age 14 or older were automatically tried on felony charges as adults if a firearm was involved in the incident.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed Senate Bill 32 on Thursday, giving judges the authority to decide whether the minor should be transferred to adult court or kept in juvenile court.
The decision is loaded with consequences for the accused. In the juvenile correctional system, the emphasis is on rehabilitation while still holding the juvenile to account, while in adult prisons, the weight is more on punishment than rehabilitation.
Thursday’s bill-signing reflects a growing acceptance among lawmakers across the country of research showing that youngsters’ brains remain subject to impulsive behavior and fail to fully grasp the consequences of their actions, as an adult would, until they mature in their mid-to-late 20s.
SB 32 essentially marks a return to a policy that held sway until the 1990s “superpredator” scare gripped the public. Every state in the country, according to NPR, eventually passed laws that took judges’ discretion away in firearms cases involving armed juveniles and instead automatically transferred them to adult court.
Backers of the new change say it can help address a huge racial disparity in the juvenile justice system in the Bluegrass State.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, African American youth are more than six times as likely to be charged as adults as white kids, making up 53% of such cases in the overwhelmingly white state.