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Ky. teens would face adult court for gun crimes under bill that passes Senate committee

FRANKFORT, Jan. 11 – Sen. Matthew Deneen, R-Elizabethtown, asks a question about the state Department of Veterans Affairs during Thursday’s meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection.
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Republican Sen. Matthew Deneen, of Elizabethtown, asks a question about the state Department of Veterans Affairs during Thursday’s meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection on Thursday Jan. 11, 2024.

Teenagers 15 years and older would be tried as adults for crimes involving firearms under a measure that passed a Senate committee on Thursday.

Currently, Kentucky prosecutors have to petition a judge to elevate a minor’s case to adult court. Senate Bill 20 would eliminate that piece of judicial discretion, and require teenagers 15 and up to be tried in adult court for crimes involving firearms.

Republican Sen. Matthew Deneen, from Elizabethtown, said his bill is designed to address a crisis, an increase in juvenile offenders committing more serious offenses, often with guns.

“We used to see adults committing these violent crimes, [but] it is reversed now,” Deneen said. “Now we are seeing youthful offenders committing these adult crimes… We want to make sure that our laws address the current issue. Not what we hope it to be, not what it was, but to deal with the current reality.”

The Senate committee on veterans and military affairs passed Senate Bill 20 Thursday. It now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

Deneen pointed to spiking juvenile firearm-related offenses over the pandemic period as a reason for the legislation. Serious juvenile offenses did increase, but federal policing data shows many of those crimes also declined sharply in 2022.

Not all Republicans agreed lawmakers should rely on the temporary spike in crime during the pandemic for lasting policy changes.

“There's been a jump in some juvenile crime, but only following sort of the COVID wave,” Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Fruit Hill, said. “And it makes me want to ask whether or not we're responding the right way.”

Westerfield, who is a lawyer, said he is concerned by the removal of some discretion within the criminal justice system. He said judges and prosecutors should be able to take into account a litany of factors when deciding whether to send a child’s case to adult court, including prior record, participation in gang activity and potential for rehabilitation.

“Whether the defendant has a serious intellectual disability, we're taking that out. The court can't consider that,” Westerfield said. “I find this repugnant, not poorly intended.”

Deneen said that the bill does allow for some judicial discretion once the child’s case gets to adult court. There a prosecutor could move to have the case sent back to juvenile court — but those exceptions aren’t laid out in the bill that passed committee Thursday.

Deneen said he believes the legislation is necessary to curb the influx of serious juvenile offenses and keep communities safe, although he said he wasn’t sure if the bill would provide any deterrent effect to stop such crimes from being committed in the first place.

“This bill is not about the prevention and the intervention. This bill is about dealing with once the crime is committed. So once that crime is committed, then we must take the steps necessary,” Deneen said.

Louisville Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said she believes lawmakers should focus on preventing youths from getting their hands on guns in the first place, rather than keeping them incarcerated longer after committing a crime.

She called for legislation that would require gun owners better secure the firearms they leave in their cars, where thousands are stolen from each year in Kentucky.

“That is a step in the right direction. But to say simply ‘we're gonna throw up our hands and there's nothing to do but put these kids away for the rest of their lives?’” Berg said. “You are guaranteeing that these children will spend longer in our incarceration systems, and they do not come out better. They come out worse.”

The bill also adds burglary, second-degree assault and wanton endangerment involving a firearm to the state’s definition of a violent offender, meaning they have to serve more of their sentence before being eligible for parole.

LPM's state government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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