Lawmakers ask about understaffing, violence in Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers

Beshear elaborates on plan to begin separating violent and status offenders by housing them in different locations

BY: MCKENNA HORSLEY (Kentucky Lantern)

After lawmakers questioned administration officials about outbreaks of violence in the state’s understaffed juvenile detention centers Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield said he welcomed administration actions but “a lot of it comes a little too late.”

In recent weeks, law enforcement responded to a riot at a juvenile detention center in Adair County amid news reports that staffing shortages are endangering employees and residents at juvenile facilities across the state. Because of the low staffing, juveniles are sometimes confined in lockdown for long periods, causing a rise in tensions that erupt in violence. 

📸  Whitney Westerfield

Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced steps aimed at separating violent offenders from juveniles who are being detained for nonviolent status offenses such as truancy by housing them in different locations and also separating juveniles by gender. 

Westerfield, R-Crofton, told reporters after the meeting that some root causes he sees are inadequate staff, low pay and Justice and Public Safety Cabinet officials “not coming to us and telling us what they need” or making a budget request to remedy the problems.

“We aren’t giving these people what they need to do their job well and to recruit enough people to get in to do it,” Westerfield said. 

As for the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, Westerfield said he is eager to see where the state goes with preventing similar situations down the road, such as how money is spent and changing policy within the Department of Juvenile Justice, such as status offenders not being in juvenile facilities at all. Status offenses would not be crimes if committed by adults.

Vicki Reed, commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice, and  Kerry Harvey, secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, appeared before the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary on Thursday. Beshear appointed Reed and Harvey to their roles in August of last year. 

Joint committee meeting

According to Reed, 48% of the juveniles in the male detention population are in the system for offenses such as capital murder and class A, B and C felonies. She added that 27% have Class D felonies and another 25% have misdemeanor charges or status offenses, which are offenses because of their age. 

For the female juvenile population, Reed said the state typically has fewer than 20 across the state and they generally have lower level offenses. 

Employees’ work “can be very dangerous and it can also be very rewarding,” Reed said, as some lives are turned around. The time frame in which a juvenile can stay in a detention center can vary because of their case disposition, making it difficult to “meaningfully engage in a full range of programs,” Reed said. She added that youths in the detained population increasingly have gang affiliations and take part in violent behavior in detention facilities that target staff and other detained youth. 

“Detention staff have to be able to handle a wide variety of youth and situations: Youth who are actively suicidal, pregnant, autistic, or have medical issues including diabetes, cancer, epilepsy or heart conditions,” the commissioner said. 

Harvey said hiring and retaining adequate staff has been an issue for DJJ and the Department of Corrections since he started in his role. Juvenile justice youth workers have had three pay increases in the last year, he added. Initially, the pay was around $14.42 an hour for an entry-level worker. 

According to a press release from the Governor’s Office, DJJ is seeking to fill more than 105 full-time positions across the state’s eight juvenile detention centers. Youth worker hourly pay now starts at $21.45, and with shift hourly premium, employees can earn upwards of $25.71 an hour. 

Harvey cited an escalation in the level of violence in the detained youth population. He said that he sees more youth who have committed violent crimes, are possibly being processed as adults in court and who have a severe mental illness. 

“I can tell you — and if we have instances where our staff has behaved inappropriately … there needs to be accountability — but when we are putting sick children in juvenile detention facilities, the outcome’s not going be good, because it’s a tragedy for that child and it’s a burden that our staff is not well-equipped to bear,” Harvey said. 

Changes to system

Last month, Kentucky State Police said troopers and other local law enforcement officers responded to a call about a riot at the Adair Regional Detention Center, a maximum security juvenile detention center. Several staff and juveniles were injured and taken to a hospital for treatment. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that an alleged sexual assault occurred elsewhere in a female-only wing of the facility during the riot. 

“The initial call was regarding a juvenile who had assaulted a staff member, confiscated the staff member’s keys and released other juveniles from their cells,” a KSP press release said.

Since the Adair County situation,Beshear has announced some efforts for juvenile justice reform in Kentucky which include transitioning a juvenile justice facility in Newport to a female-only facility for ages 11 to 18 and that male juveniles ages 14 and older will be housed by level of offense instead of in the closest facility. 

On Thursday, Beshear further clarified the locations for housing male juveniles by level of offense. Starting next year, those with Class A, B or C felonies will be housed at higher-level security juvenile detention centers in Adair, Fayette and Warren counties. Those with Class D felonies or lesser offenses will be in Boyd, Breathitt, Jefferson and McCracken counties. 

Male juveniles 14 or older with Class D felonies that involve unusual violence could be assigned to a high-security facility. Those with lesser offenses but engage in violent or disruptive behavior while detained could also be moved to a high-security facility. 

The governor said that nobody wants to have to take these steps, “but we absolutely do have to take them” to bring a higher level of security to the facilities. Additionally, his administration is looking to upgrade the physical security in the juvenile detention centers. 

“Sadly, the DJJ system is just totally different than it was 20 years ago. We have to change for the safety of everybody involved, and these are the most dramatic changes we’ve seen in the DJJ facilities and operations since inception,” Beshear said. “I hope that there is a future and a near future where so much of our violent crime is not being committed by juveniles, but right now it is. It is. And with that being the case, we need and must make these changes.”

While taking questions from reporters, the governor said he discussed some steps in an initial briefing with the General Assembly and that his administration looks forward to input from legislators. 

What’s next

Earlier this week, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that monthly reports from facility superintendents alerted Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice officials that facilities did not have enough employees to maintain control or follow staffing requirements mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. 

The Adair County Community Voice published a story Wednesday with accounts and documents from nurses who left their jobs at the Adair County Detention Center because “they were unable to resolve what they considered mistreatment of juveniles and the inability to do their jobs responsibly.”

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in an interview with the Kentucky Lantern that the state’s juvenile justice system is “beyond a crisis and getting worse.” Some areas that have been an issue for a while include workforce retention and recruitment, educational programming in facilities, behavioral and mental health support and more. 

Another area of concern, Brooks said, is that lawmakers once had a general consensus on the topic of juvenile justice, but now there is more of a divide. When it comes to addressing Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, he said it is a balancing act. 

Two critical moments for juvenile justice policy on the horizon are the 2023 gubernatorial election and revisiting the state’s budget in 2024, Brooks said. 

“We’ve got to take time to figure out what questions we need to be asking and what are potential solutions,” Brooks said. 

Featured 📸: The Beshear administration plans to separate violent juvenile offenders from those who committed status offenses by moving them to different locations around the state. (Photo by Getty Images)

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.

Republished with permission from Kentucky Lantern under Creative Commons 4.0 License.