Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr.’s values, witness and leadership on many human rights issues are done from different points of view. Some celebrate the progress made as a result of Dr. King’s mobilizing people of good will to work to see all as equal and to change our laws to reflect that immutable fact. Others do not celebrate but complain about the lack of achieving full realization of equality for all.
We defenders stand with those who both celebrate the progress in the reduction of overt racial exclusion from housing, jobs and voting and lament the economic inequalities, unconscious bias[1] and veiled attempts to undermine rights achieved through a protracted struggle. And we also focus our energy on work to bring more advancement towards the equality of all, especially in our criminal justice system.
We defenders have special responsibilities to:

  • work for authentic awareness of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 termed as the “chains of discrimination”[2] that continue in 2016 to cause illegal racial disparity in our society and the Kentucky criminal justice system, and
  • call for common sense reforms that bring us closer to the dream where justice surges like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.[3]  

“Illegitimate….racial disparity in the criminal justice system results from dissimilar treatment of similarly situated people based on race.”[4] The gross disparities in Kentucky can only be explained one of two ways. African Americans commit crime at a much higher rate than others, or the policies and practices of our criminal justice system are causing disparities that are illegal. Empirical evidence does not support the claim that minority overrepresentation is solely because minorities commit more crime.[5]
The data and its analysis speak volumes. It matches our experience. “We have not ended the racial cast system in America; we have merely redesigned it.”[6] Tragically, our criminal justice system has illegitimate racial disparity that must be eradicated if people are to have full confidence in the system’s ability to provide results that are fair. Let’s get on with addressing it. Kentucky public defenders have been working on common sense reform to better address the illegal disparities safely.
As but one example, the data shows that the percentage of DPA juvenile clients who are African-Americans continues to rise, from 18|PERCENT| in FY14 to 21|PERCENT| in FY16.  Among our clients, an African-American child is 3.5 times more likely to be charged with a Class B felony than a White child and 48|PERCENT| more likely to be charged with a felony.  There is an urgent need for addressing the imbalance in the system.  DPA continues to work for specific recommendations to make improvements, including eliminating automatic transfers and restricting commitments and lengthy detention sentences.
Today, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. did in 1963 in the shadow of Lincoln, we must remind ourselves and all Kentuckians “of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”[7]


[1] See Harvard’s implicit bias project,
[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream, delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Found at:
[3] Amos 5:24.
[4] The Sentencing Project, “Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers (2008),”
[5] The Sentencing Project, “Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers” (2008), p. 6,
[6] “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminal in nearly all ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal.” Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), p. 2.
[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream.