Republican lawmakers call for leadership change in Kentucky juvenile justice

by McKenna Horsley, Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT — Republican lawmakers on Thursday called for a “change in leadership” in response to violence and inadequate care in Kentucky’s juvenile detention facilities. 

House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, called for “an outside trustee” to manage the department and said a legislative work group has asked state Auditor Mike Harmon for a full performance audit. 

“The people of Kentucky have lost confidence in the folks that are running the Department of Juvenile Justice,” Nemes said. 

While the General Assembly has been in recess, a group of legislators has been gathering information on the Department of Juvenile Justice to make recommendations. In recent months, reports of violence have made headlines, such as a riot in Adair County in which a girl in state custody was allegedly sexually assaulted. Last week, two employees at the youth detention center in Warren County were attacked, media reports say. 

Later Thursday, Gov. Andy Beshear defended DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed. He said Reed is invested in addressing the department’s issues and that is what he wants in a commissioner.

In a Thursday news conference, co-chair of the work group, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, called for a “change in leadership with DJJ.” He said the department’s current culture includes lack of communication and self-preservation.  Republican lawmakers part of a working juvenile justice group give an update on their findings in the Capitol Rotunda. Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, speaks at the podium. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by McKenna Horsley)

When asked to clarify about his position on Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Kerry Harvey’s leadership, Carroll said that he was not calling for his resignation and added that the long-term “breakdown in leadership” was from positions beneath Harvey. 

After the press conference, a Kentucky Lantern reporter asked Carroll about DJJ Commissioner Reed’s leadership. He said she has not acted sufficiently to resolve recent issues though he does believe she cares about the children the department works with. The department changed within the time that she was away from it, he added. Before her appointment, Reed last worked in Juvenile Justice as the director of the Division of Classification and Placement Services until 2004.

“I think there’s probably some disconnect there, but within top leadership within DJJ… we feel like the governor really needs to take a close look at that and especially at the branch where these facilities fall under,” Carroll said. 

Harvey and Reed were appointed by Gov. Andy Beshear in August 2021. The governor said Thursday afternoon that Reed comes from the private sector working in non-profits outside the system though she did work for the department in the past. 

“My goal is to get this fixed, and I want somebody who is completely invested in getting it fixed. … What I have seen of our current commissioner is she wants to make these changes,” Beshear said. “She wants to make these facilities safe. And we’re going to ensure that the resources and the opportunities are there.”

Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-​​Greensburg, who sponsored a resolution convening the work group, said Thursday that lawmakers have welcomed a few Beshear administration changes, such as separating juveniles by gender and grading  facilities by their ability to hold high-level detainees. However, the workgroup calls for further steps to reform the department. 

“In the absence of leadership, a problem becomes a crisis,” Givens said. 

Though only the Senate adopted Givens’ resolution during the first week of January, the bipartisan work group wanted to avoid a delay in responding to the crisis, the senator said. Therefore, it met to identify immediate and long-term ways to change the culture within DJJ. 

The group met two days each week, Carroll said. Cooperation from the executive branch was good though it was “conditional at times.” The group had access to people who would normally not feel comfortable being on camera and gained some information anonymously through phone calls and contacts with legislators, he added.  

On access to officials within his administration, Beshear said that while the workgroup was not legally authorized, members of his administration still worked with it. He said the group met behind closed doors without public access. The group at first stopped Executive Cabinet Secretary and State Budget Director John Hicks from coming to a meeting, though he eventually met with it Thursday.

“What it meant is we lost out on an opportunity to brief legislators, which we were going to about that last round of changes before we made them,” Beshear said. “So listen, we want to cooperate. We’re willing to cooperate. We have sent our very top officials that can get things done over to have very candid conversations, but this ought to be done in the open. It ought to be done open to the press and the public.

As for an outside audit, Beshear said he was in favor of that if it was done in a non-political way and if the actions are implemented from the review.

Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, another co-chair, said the working group met with Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg recently and “we came out of that meeting all on board that Louisville is going to get a detention center and a good one.” More details are to come, the representative said. 

The work group’s final meeting was scheduled for Thursday. Lawmakers return to Frankfort next week. 

Senate Minority Floor Leader Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said after the press conference that he was not sure if leadership changes are needed in DJJ and that the whole issue is complex. He cautioned his colleagues as they moved through the process.  

“You have to come together with the right kind of expertise with assessments about how you do this stuff,” Neal said. 

Among new changes in DJJ, Beshear announced Thursday that Kentucky State Police would be placed in the high-level security detention centers— Adair, Warren and Fayette counties— and that his administration will ask lawmakers to support changes made within the department.

To improve the state’s juvenile justice system modifying statues and appropriating funds are needed, Hicks said. The work group asked the executive branch what it needs, he added. On the funding side, the answer includes $3.2 million in the next fiscal year operating budget to sustain starting pay of $50,000 annually for youth detention workers, $5.8 million to expand the DJJ’s transportation system, and $11.6 million to hire additional staff. Dollars are also needed to improve and ensure safety at existing facilities, like $4.5 million for physical upgrades to the Jefferson County youth detention center, which is set to re-open after it was closed in November.

In a memo to reporters, the work group released its recommendations and divided them into met and unmet: 


  • Provide immediate, intermediate and long term resources or statutory changes needed. Provided by Secretary Harvey.
  • Use every resource at your disposal to restore safety, order, structure, and discipline to detention facilities. Called up Kentucky State Police 24/7 365 until order is restored.
  • Provide specific gaps in the law you’ve identified as needing reform to allow for a healthy department that protects both youth and staff.
  • The only statutory changes formally requested from the Justice and Public Safety: Would allow juveniles charged with an offense that would be illegal if committed by an adult to be released on bail in the same way an adult would Low-level or status offenders— those committing an offense that for a child is criminal but not for an adult— or a misdemeanor would not go to a detention facility, requiring a judge to order an alternative like home incarceration.
  • Trauma care is available to detention facility employees. State employees have mental health coverage through the KY Employee Assistance Program.


  • Unfettered access to cabinet and department officials and rank and file employees free of intimidation from Governor’s Office officials.
  • Explain the failure to further implement the 2017 KY Department of Juvenile Justice Conditions of Confinement Assessment Summary of Key Findings and Recommendations by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
  • Develop and maintain a tracking notification system to automatically notify necessary and authorized parties of detained youth’s movement.
  • Consider replacing key DJJ leadership and conduct a nationwide search for qualified applicants.
  • Enter into and maintain a contract with Our Lady of Peace hospital which provides comprehensive mental health treatment.
  • Open inspection by an independent party of the detention facilities.Appoint an outside trustee as a receiver to manage the overhaul of DJJ.

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