EJ was in middle school when he entered Kentucky Juvenile Justice — it’s a system where Black youth are starkly overrepresented

BY: SARAH LADD (Kentucky Lantern)

When Edward “EJ” LaGantta was arrested for the first time, he was in middle school.

Not yet a teenager, he was arrested after being in a fight with a white boy. 

Louisville’s LaGantta, who is Black, went into juvenile detention for the first of five times, including for truancy. 

The white boy, LaGantta heard, went home. 

LaGantta’s experiences with the justice system highlight broader problems and stark disparities. 

There are a disproportionate number of Black youth in Kentucky’s detention centers. Their incarcerated percentages have increased over at least the past four years. 

Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice data — obtained through a Lantern open records request — show a sharp incline in the admissions of Black male youth incarcerated in Kentucky.

In 2021, they overtook white male totals. Across all races documented, admissions to youth detention centers rose in 2021 and 2022 after a decline in 2020. In 2020, there were 1,892 admissions. That number rose to 2,065 in 2021 and 3,402 last year. 

That drop in 2021 is not surprising, according to Rebecca DiLoreto, a Lexington criminal defense lawyer, juvenile advocate and professor. 

“You can tell the effort being made during COVID to not incarcerate” lower-level offenders, she said.

“My thinking is a lot of that shooting way up” in 2021, she added, “has to do with courts returning to their previous practice of using … the default consequence — being jail — for all kinds of offenders, instead of thinking in a more particularized way.” 

Documented disparities within juvenile justice know no gender. 

Although the number of females incarcerated is lower than that of males, female incarcerations also increased in 2021. The Black female census increased more than the white female total. In 2022, there were 137 more Black female youths behind bars than in 2021. For white females, the census jumped by 105 — 32  fewer than Black girls.

There are more white people than Black people in Kentucky. 

In 2021, Kentucky’s child population was 9% Black and 77% white, according to the Kentucky Youth Advocates’ most recent Kids Count report

Black Kentuckians made up roughly 9% of the commonwealth’s population in 2022, with white Kentuckians accounting for 87%, according to the United States Census Bureau

But in 2022, Black youth were 45% of the detention center population in the state. White youth were 43% that same year. 

In fact, the percentage of Black youth in Kentucky’s detention centers has increased every year since 2019. All the while, percentages of white youth decreased. 

A ‘shock’ to the consciousness 

Reports of heightened violence in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers prompted the Beshear administration to reorganize how youth are incarcerated as well as increase the starting pay for some detention workers. 

Kentucky’s legislators don’t all agree on how best to address youth violence, such as how and to what extent guards should be armed.

Senate Bill 200, which passed in 2014 and went into effect in 2015, reformed responses to serious crimes, among other things. 

Whitney Westerfield
 Whitney Westerfield

“The one thing that it didn’t do that I wish it had done — and that is to address the racial disparities we have,” Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, said on the Jan. 23 episode of KET’s Kentucky Tonight

“If that 83-84% doesn’t shock your conscience, I don’t know what can,” Westerfield said, referring to the high number of incarcerated youth from Jefferson County who are Black. 

The Kids Count report explained the disparities between white youth and youth of color this way: “Perceptions that youth of color are older than their actual age, or are more culpable, contribute to young Black children having complaints filed against them at a higher rate compared to their White peers.” 

DiLoreto agreed. “What happens is that that young boy who’s African American and acts out – his behavior is … adultified and he’s perceived and treated as much older than he is, much more able to control everything that he does, and really having evil intent,” she said. 

“The whole adultification of youth … happens in the schools and it happens in the courts,” DiLoreto said. “It happens with police in the community.”  

LaGantta feels his case was a perfect example of this adultification — and the racial disparity within it.

If Black children get in trouble with the law, he said, “they’re already trying to find a way to put us into the adult system.” 

But, he feels, “If you’re a white kid, they would be trying to figure out how to change you or rehabilitate you.” 

A national problem 

Kentucky isn’t alone in this problem. The American Civil Liberties Union says Black children are imprisoned around five times more than their white counterparts.

The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy nonprofit based in Washington D.C., reported in 2021 that Hawaii is the only state where Black youth are not more likely to be in juvenile justice custody. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that, among youth ages 10-24, homicide is the third leading cause of death. But among non-hispanic Black youth, it is the leading cause. 

Violence impacting youth is expensive too, costing around $100 billion every year, per the CDC. Daily, more than 1,000 youth get treatment for assault injuries.

The effects don’t end with a hospital bill. 

Youth violence can result in “serious and lasting effects” on people’s health — physical, mental and social, the CDC says. 

It can also hinder development, decision-making, lead to learning challenges and more. 

A ‘feeder system for adult crime’ 

Dr. Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
 Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, told the Kentucky Lantern that there is little benefit in punishment-centric juvenile detention programs. 

A child who experiences “traditional” detention is more likely to end up back in jail —and for a worse crime, Brooks said. Traditional detention refers to punishment-focused as opposed to youth-centric with educational, career readiness and mental health programs. 

“The likelihood of then being involved in the criminal justice system as an adult is higher” as well, he said. 

In addition to detention centers, Kentucky has development centers, which a DJJ spokesperson said is where some youth go for treatment post-adjudication. The state also has group homes and day treatment programs.

Similarly to detention centers, admissions to the development centers fell in 2020 and increased in 2021. Those totals dropped in 2022, as well as totals for Black and white kids. There were also more Black than white females in 2022, as well as more Black males than white.

In 2019, Black youth were 49% of the admissions to development centers. That dropped to 38% in 2020, rose to 47% in 2021 and 60% in 2022.

“We know that traditional detention systems don’t help the kid now. They don’t help the community now because it really actually ferments additional offenses, and it probably is a feeder system for adult crime,” said Brooks. 

 “We know that detention doesn’t work,” says Rep. Keturah Herron.

State Rep. Keturah Herron, a Louisville Democrat, agreed. 

“We know that detention doesn’t work,” she said. “I just think that … it’s going to be harmful if we in Kentucky move toward this more punitive state, especially if that intervention and prevention piece is not there, as well as those community based services…” 

LaGantta said rhetoric calling youth today more violent doesn’t help with this mindset. 

“When you’re treated like an animal, you’re going to give that,” he told the Lantern. 

Children already struggle to get past a stint in the juvenile justice system, he said.

“They feel like once they make that one mistake,” he said, “it’s over.” 

The ACEs factor 

When thinking about juvenile justice, said Brooks with KYA, one also has to look at causal factors behind lawbreaking behavior. Those often go back to child traumas, or Adverse Childhood Experiences. 

“Juvenile justice issues do not happen in a vacuum. I do not believe that any kid just wakes up today and says ‘I’m going to get in trouble,’” Brooks said. “It does not mean that kids don’t bear some level of accountability. But we know that a lot of the time, traumatic experiences and traumatic environments … tend to contribute to bad, lawbreaking behavior.” 

ACEs refer to traumas or stressors in childhood, such as witnessing violence, abuse or living through a parental incarceration. People who survive ACEs can also then go on to perpetuate them as they grow up in some cases. 

“We know kids who have experienced maltreatment, kids who have experienced poverty, are disproportionately represented in both the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system,” Brooks added. 

And he said: “Kids of color in Kentucky are more likely to experience those kinds of events that are associated with … troubling behavior.” 

Additionally, Herron, the Louisville legislator, said over-policing in Black communities is also a factor. 

“Especially for our young people, our juveniles, that school to prison pipeline is real for that population,” said Herron. 

“If there is the political will to address disparities, the only viable way to do that is to look upstream,” Brooks said. “If we do not get to the causal factors, the core issues that contribute to illegal behavior then we’re going to continue to see that disparity exist.”

Indeed, youth often come to the system with existing traumas, DiLoreto said. 

“We had funding and they chose to put it elsewhere,” she said. “They’ve chosen to put it in cameras and barbed wire, but they could choose to put it in mental health.” 

LaGantta’s case is a good example. He was in and out of foster homes from the age of five. Custodians beat him. 

Never once, he said, did he have a long term home life in which he felt truly cared for. 

Instead of jail, LaGantta needed someone to check on him, he said. Instead, they called the police. 

“The only time I felt safe,” said LaGantta, “was when I was by myself.” Eventually he ran away, choosing homelessness over abuse. 

Westerfield said there is a need for more awareness of the system’s racial disparities. Additionally, there’s a need for consistent race data collection across agencies. 

“We tend to see that Black and Brown kids get less breaks than white kids,” Westerfield acknowledged.  “Black and Brown kids typically get harsher sentences.” 

The United States Sentencing Commission previously reported that nationally Black males received sentences 19% longer than white males in similar situations from 2012-2016. 

To address that, “We need to identify charging decisions, arresting or detention decisions,” he said. “Where we find racial disparities at those different points of contact, you’ve just got to come up with policies, either within an agency or at the state level through legislation,” to address them. 

LaGantta, 23, is now a business student at Jefferson Community and Technical College. In his work with Kentucky Youth Advocates, he works to decrease child incarceration and racial disparities within the DJJ system. 

He already sees a few solutions. Community centers need extended hours, he said, so youth can spend recreational time with friends. Too often, he said, youth who don’t have that option end up going to the streets. He wants to use his time with KYA to build connections with them. 

“And if I can help change one of their lives,” he said, “I have accomplished everything I’ve been fighting for.” 

Reporter Liam Niemeyer contributed to this report.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

Top photo: Edward “EJ” LaGant­ta (Photo by Kentucky Youth Advocates)