Why is a misbehaving black child more likely to look like a criminal to the adults in his life?
This question, raised by statistics from the Administrative Office of the Courts, is one that should demand the attention not just of court officials and lawmakers but also of educators.
It might explain quite a bit.
Black children under the age of 11 are disproportionately the target of criminal complaints and subject to court proceedings in Kentucky.
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Unlike 16 other states, Kentucky puts no limit on the age at which a child may be criminally charged. State law also requires schools to report certain incidents, including assault and property damage.
More than 1,000 criminal complaints were filed against children ages 10 and under in 2009 and 2010. A few of the children were as young as 5.
The Herald-Leader's Valarie Honeycutt Spears and Linda J. Johnson analyzed the cases of 748 children under 11 who had complaints filed against them.
They discovered that black children were the subject of 25 percent of the complaints although they make up just 9 percent of the age group.
Half the complaints filed against black children were referred to official court proceedings, while a little more than a quarter, 28 percent, of complaints against white children ended up in the courts.
Also, half the complaints against white children were either dismissed or handled outside the courts compared to a little more than a quarter, 29 percent, of the complaints against black children.
There also seems to be a good bit of variation among counties in how complaints against young children are handled. In Fayette County, a child under 11 is almost never prosecuted.
Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, is eager to reform a system that relies on the courts to deal with children who are too young to comprehend the proceedings.
He's already getting encouragement from judiciary committee member Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, who says "we've criminalized way too much the misbehaving by children."
Finding more effective ways to deal with children's behavioral issues would be a good use of lawmakers' time.
This is also an issue for educators to examine as they work to close achievement gaps.
In the most recent round of statewide testing, just 50 percent of black students scored proficient or higher in reading and math compared with 72 percent of white students.
The expectations of adults, especially teachers, are powerful forces in the life of a child.
Being labeled a criminal before you even know what it means is a self-fulfilling prophecy that helps no one.