Editorials

Stop labeling children criminals

We agree with House Speaker Greg Stumbo that illegal activities should not be decriminalized just because they are committed by juveniles.

By the same token, juvenile misbehavior should not be criminalized just because it's committed by a child who is black or lives in a place where adults call the cops on a 10-year-old who loses control, both of which are happening far too often in Kentucky.

Also, taxpayers should not be paying to lock up juveniles for doing things (running away, skipping school) that are not crimes when done by adults.

The money that's being spent on jailing juvenile status offenders and prosecuting young children could be put to much better use dealing with the problems in children's lives that produce the poor choices and bad behavior.

A pair of bills already introduced in the House provide a good starting point for launching needed reforms, getting kids the help they need and keeping them off the track to prison. Stumbo and House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley should give them a hearing.

■ House Bill 143, sponsored by Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, establishes 11 as the age for criminal responsibility and stops the practice of criminally charging children who are 10 or younger.

Growing up while black shouldn't be a crime. The disproportionate criminalization of black children is especially troubling.

A Herald-Leader analysis of criminal complaints filed against Kentucky children under 11 found that black youngsters are being charged and sent to court at a significantly higher rate than their white counterparts and are less likely to have charges dismissed.

Only bad can come from labeling a 9- or 10-year-old a criminal — for the child and for society.

If HB 143 becomes law, the Administrative Office of the Courts would work with relevant agencies to make sure children get the services they need, said Patrick Yewell, executive officer of the judicial agency's family and juvenile services.

■ HB 61, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, reforms the state's approach to dealing with juvenile status offenders and would decrease the number of kids being detained.

Kentucky now locks up status offenders at the nation's second-highest rate.

We understand that Kentucky's child-protective services are already strained to the breaking point and desperately need more social workers and funding, some of which Gov. Steve Beshear is proposing to provide in the next budget.

But helping kids is cheaper than locking them up — in the short and long terms. It's also the right thing to do.

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