Kentucky General Assembly Passes Juvenile Justice Reform Bills

Frankfort, Ky.–On Thursday, the Kentucky General Assembly approved two bills aimed at improving the state’s juvenile justice system. The bills, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 162, were the result of months of discussions between lawmakers and juvenile justice stakeholders.

Senate Bill 162, which passed the House unanimously on Thursday, addresses several issues within the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), including severe understaffing, a lack of services for youth with severe mental illness, and a culture of self-preservation in management. The bill would have all eight juvenile detention centers report to one supervisor, establish a centralized DJJ tracking system, and appoint non-voting members from the House and Senate to the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council. Additionally, the DJJ would be allowed to enter into a contract with a third party organization to work with juveniles with severe emotional or mental illnesses, and would be given pepper spray and tasers to use during violent incidents at detention centers. The bill appropriates millions toward salary increases, security upgrades at DJJ centers, and a diversionary program for youths suffering from a severe mental health crisis.

House Bill 3, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, requires children taken into custody for a violent felony offense to be detained a maximum of 48 hours before receiving a detention hearing and an evaluation on mental health and substance use disorders. The bill also enhances access to mental health care and restorative justice programs and appropriates funds toward the renovation of two juvenile detention centers.

Both bills will now go to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.

Supporters of the bills hope they will lead to significant improvements in Kentucky’s juvenile justice system, which has faced criticism for its treatment of young offenders. Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, the primary sponsor of HB 3, emphasized that the bills are not about “locking children up and throwing away the key.” Rather, he said, they are aimed at providing appropriate support and resources to young people in the justice system.

Photo: Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, R-Louisville, presents juvenile justice reform bill House Bill 3. (LRC PIO)