Injustice for Breonna Taylor and Many More in Kentucky's Legal System

Oct 08, 2020

Breonna Taylor was murdered by the police in her own home, and last week we learned that no police officers will be held criminally responsible. Attorney General Cameron presented limited charges and the grand jury only indicted one officer for wanton endangerment, alleging only that he shot blindly into a neighbor’s home during the raid. This is not only a failure of police officers to do their jobs effectively– it is a failure of the very institutions and laws that are supposed to keep community members safe.

Thousands have been speaking out about this horrendous injustice for Breonna Taylor. Additionally, CEO has been dealing with the ramifications of this decision in a different context. We are an employer and service provider in Louisville supporting participants who have recently been released from incarceration. They are trying to reconnect to the workforce during the nation’s most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The government’s response to the grand jury decision – in particular the increased police presence and the curfew in the city – has had a profound impact on CEO participants. Justice-involved individuals are more vulnerable to aggressive enforcement efforts from the police. Any law enforcement contact at a protest could mean their detention, potential parole revocation, and long-term re-incarceration.

CEO participants are also essential workers - staffing local food banks, supporting logistics operations at local warehouses in the Louisville metro area - and have to travel to and from work during hours that often fall outside of a government curfew mandated by the protests. Already vulnerable due to their parole/probation supervision, it is now more difficult than ever to avoid contact with police during their commutes. Our CEO Louisville team has been working to ensure our participants safely receive the services that they need. Our staff have been driving participants home from their work shifts, sometimes as late as 2:00am to ensure that they remain safe and in compliance with the local curfew.

Given these acute vulnerabilities for justice-involved individuals, the contrast with how the legal system treats police officers is stark. As many have pointed out, the charge of wanton endangerment ignores Officer Hankinson’s and the other officers’ actions that led to Breonna Taylor’s death (as she is not named in the charged complaint). It is also notable that wanton endangerment is a class D felony. This is the same charge level that police officers used to arrest protesters with felonies outside of Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s home in July, as well as dozens of protesters – including Kentucky legislators – in the days following the grand jury indictment.

Kentucky’s legal system has a long history of over-utilizing Class D felonies: it is the most frequently charged felony offense used by prosecutors in the state. It is also a law that can be applied with great inequity: in this circumstance, a prosecutor can charge an officer with wanton endangerment (which could be punishable only with probation) even when a person kills someone; in another they could recommend five years in prison for a non-violent crime. Starting in 2011, policy makers pushed forward a reform effort to reduce sentencing guidelines for some of the most prevalent class D felonies in order to reduce the prison population. Unfortunately these reforms were unsuccessful; these charges are still the most frequently used in the system and the biggest reason why people go to prison in Kentucky. Additionally, the proportion of Black people in prison in Kentucky is 2.5 times higher than their proportion of the general Kentucky population. We know that decisions made in all stages of the Kentucky legal system contribute to these racial disparities, particularly for common charges like Class D felonies. They start with the broad discretion that police and prosecutors use to decide what to arrest people for and what to charge people with.

This double-standard has dangerous consequences for people of color and for people on parole or probation like our CEO participants. Though we hope that this case is ultimately not another example of this charge being applied unequally, it is essential that the policies that enable this possibility are eliminated. We need to push for laws with less disparate impact, elect prosecutors that prioritize equity, and hold police accountable for acts of abuse and violence if we want a true justice system in Kentucky and across our country. We need this to protect black and brown lives, and to ensure that people coming home from incarceration actually have the opportunity to succeed.